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.)
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.
Their 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.