What’s for breakfast? Time to get Beyond Eggs.

Next time you dig into a breakfast of fried eggs, or enjoy a cupcake from your favorite bakery, or boil some egg noodles, don’t stop and think about the chicken that laid those eggs. You may lose your appetite.

According to the Animal Welfare Institute:

More than 95% of the approximately 280 million egg-laying hens in the United States are confined to barren battery cages where they are crowded and deprived of the ability to perform natural behaviors such as exploring, nesting, perching, dust bathing, or simply stretching their wings. Birds endure painful beak trimming, stand on wire floors that cripple their legs, breathe toxic air, and live their entire lives under unnatural, dim lighting.

A chicken lives its life on a footprint no bigger than an iPad. Imagine living the rest of your life just where you are sitting right now, crowded on every side by other humans, unable to move. You’d go insane, as Bruce Friedrich of Farm Sanctuary argues in this excellent essay. He calls eggs from caged hens “the cruelest of all factory farm products.

If you’re indifferent to the suffering of animals, consider that factory-farmed chickens have a big environmental footprint, albeit not as big as beef or pork. I couldn’t find any peer-reviewed life cycle analyses of eggs but, according to Slate, egg-laying hens are fed lots of grain, they’re pumped with antibiotics and they generate a lot of waste.

(And, if you want to get really grossed-out, read this long story that the Washington Post published just last week about the use of toxic chemicals to kill bacteria in plants that process chickens for meat.)

Josh Tetrick

Josh Tetrick

Josh Tetrick, the CEO and founder of Hampton Creek Foods, is convinced that there’s a better way. He wants to take America Beyond Eggs.

Beyond Eggs, according to Josh, is a healthier, safer, environmentally-friendly, plant-based ingredient for egg-based food products. And unlike the pricey, all natural, organic, free range eggs on sale at Whole Foods, Hampton Creek’s egg substitutes cost less than most of the eggs on the supermarket shelf.

“We’re about 18 percent less expensive than cheap, battery cage eggs,” Josh told me, when we spoke last week.

There’s just one catch. You can’t fry or scramble them–not yet anyway.

But that doesn’t mean there’s not a big market for  Beyond Eggs. Of the 79 billion (!) eggs that are laid every year, about 31% are used as ingredients in other products, according to Josh. He’s 33-year-old entrepreneur, a Fulbright Scholar and a former college football player who worked in South Africa, Nigeria and Liberia before focusing on the food system, and how to improve it.

Like Josh, I’m fascinated by food, agriculture and the environment and, in particular, the future of protein–how are we going to sustainably produce the meat, fish or vegetable proteins that people need? It’s a wide-open question with a variety of answers that are likely to include holistic ranch practices, better-managed wild fisheries, well-regulated aquaculture, people adopting vegetarian or vegan diets, and innovative products like Beyond Eggs and Beyond Meat (which I’ve been enjoying at home and will write about soon). We’ll be discussing the future of protein at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference this week with, among others, Josh Tetrick, Clarence Otis, who is CEO of Darden, the nation’s biggest restaurant chain, Ethan Brown of Beyond Meat and Jim Howell, the chief executive of Grasslands LLC. Recently, Bill Gates put together a presentation mentioning Beyond Meat and Beyond Eggs in which he explains “how food scientists are reinventing meat–and how it can benefit everyone.

It’s not just Gates who sees opportunities to reinvent the food business. San Francisco-based Hampton Creek is being financed by the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Khosla Ventures, which has invested about $3 million in the startup. Beyond Meat has backing from Kleiner Perkins. Venture investors evidently believe there is money to be made in disrupting the conventional food and agriculture business.

Certainly Josh feels that way about raising egg-laying hens in cages. “Is this, like, 1910?” he asks. “You put nine to 10 chickens in a cage that’s so small, and they are fed lots of corn and soy. It’s so inefficient….It’s a huge, broken, absurd system that really needs innovation.”

The challenge, of course, is coming up with an egg replacement that’s healthier, greener, cheaper and provides all of the “functional characteristics that can replicate or surpass the eggs,” Josh said. Food scientists at Hampton Creek, which employs about 20 people and is less than two years old, have come a long way.

BeyondEggs-logo-300x300Their first couple of products will be ready for release in the next couple of months. One is Beyond Eggs, a shelf-stable powder which, when mixed with water, can be substituted for eggs in baking and other recipes. The second is Just Mayo, a mayonnaise made with its plant-based eggs. They’ll sell them to consumers through retail outlets–none have been announced as yet–and also as industrial ingredients to food manufacturers.

“Our biggest collaboration is with a Fortune 200 company,” Josh said, but the firm isn’t ready to be named yet.

The harder problem to, er, crack is developing a substitute for scrambled eggs, or eggs that wind up in an omelet or quiche. Right now, Hampton Creek can whip up a presentable batch of scrambled eggs but only if they are eaten right away; soon after coming out of the pan, the plant-based eggs collapse. “We’re still working on that,” Josh says.

Comments

  1. John Ranta says:

    The author confuses two issues. One is the benefits of eating eggs. The other is the way factory egg producers treat chickens. Eggs are healthy, nutritious and delicious. Factory produced eggs are unacceptable. There’s more than one way to raise a chicken, and more and more egg producers are doing it rght. Don’t give up eggs, buy your eggs that are harvested from chickens that are raised humanely. jr

    • Marc Gunther says:

      I agree and so, I think, does Josh Tetrick. But the fact is that 95 per cent of eggs come from caged chickens.

    • I do, Marc. Ethical eggs are the rare exception. Our focus is on the the rest. Thanks for reading, John.

      • Those are really great points. However, what about the baby boy chickens not deemed “useful” as “units” in these free-range “happy” farms, who still see the end of their life being dumped into industrial grinders.
        After watching that just two months ago I completely stopped all local, organic, free range egg farm purchases. I’m lucky to live near a Chicken Rescue operation so now I pay more but buy less to support the rescue, not the factories.

        • Marc Gunther says:

          Thanks for your comment, Rose. It came as a shock to me to learn that the baby boy chickens are killed right after they are born because they are not productive. Seems terribly wasteful.

          Of course, those of us who eat meat or fish (myself, included, though less and less all the time) are responsible for the deaths of grown chicken, cattle and fish as well.

        • Could you tell us the name of the chicken rescue? Is it a part of a larger organization or listing of similar rescues? That does seem like the best of all alternatives. It would be nice to find one in my area.

    • On a side note….according to the USDA, it is illegal for egg companies to use terms such as “healthy”, “nutritious”, or even “safe”, when referring to their eggs. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RtGf2FuzKo4

  2. Thank you so much for covering this. Many great points! On the one hand, this, “Venture investors evidently believe there is money to be made in disrupting the conventional food and agriculture business” makes me cringe thinking of the family farms who’ve fed America that this could hurt. We should not leave them in the dust if they in fact want to shift with shifting markets.

    I also hope something like this type of food-source doesn’t get bought out down the line by a Monsanto type.

  3. Sibley says:

    Didn’t we pass a law against this caged style of chicken raising in California? Do you know where that stands, and does it just mean that all California-raised chickens (including those in the coop behind our house) are in the 5%?

    • Marc Gunther says:

      The law takes effect in 2015. I don’t know much more than that. But I’m learning that there’s lots of business activity around plant-based proteins, as meat and egg prices rises, as a result of rising feed costs. I think we are at the very beginning of what could be big changes in animal agriculture.

  4. There is a big push towards community sourced agriculture (like this one: http://innercityfarms.com) in many cities today. A spin-off of this has been community sourced bee hives for sourcing honey (and helping pollination along). I think these are both brilliant, but when I look for eggs sourced in a similar way, I come up with little. While I know the policies overseeing city-kept chicken will vary greatly between regions, is there an inclination from any of the corners you research to make this kind of community egg sourcing more accessible?

    I’d love to be able to walk down the street and say hello to the chickens laying the eggs I bring to the table. I find it frustrating that I can’t, when it seems like such a reasonable model.

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  1. […] environmentally-friendly, plant-based ingredient for egg-based food products. [See my blogpost, What's for breakfast? Time to get Beyond Eggs] Lately, I’ve been enjoying a product called Beyond Meat, a plant-based protein that tastes […]

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