Splashy deals involving plant-based food companies tend to make the biggest headlines when they’re with big-name companies — Burger King, McDonald’s, KFC. But we should also pay attention to more low-key agreements with less recognizable names that arguably have a bigger effect on our food system.
Case in point: Thursday’s announcement that Just, a leading producer of plant-based eggs, has partnered with massive international food service provider Sodexo to bring plant-based eggs to the schools, office buildings, hospitals, and other institutions Sodexo serves.
You probably haven’t heard of Sodexo, though they serve 75 million meals every day at 34,000 locations worldwide. And you may not have heard of Just, though the San Francisco-based company told me they’re outselling all branded almond and soy milks to be one of the bestselling plant-based food products in the supermarkets where they’re available.
But the deal is worth paying attention to. It will replace a lot of eggs, making it in many ways better news than a flashier deal with a brand-name restaurant. Egg agriculture gets less attention than meat, but it causes just as many problems — making egg replacements a top priority for environmental and animal activists.
Eggless eggs can’t do everything eggs can. But they can do enough.
Eggless eggs took longer to develop than veggie burgers because eggs are tricky to emulate, and there aren’t many plant-based protein sources that behave the way eggs do.
Just makes their plant-based eggs from mung beans. It took a lot of work to find a protein that would scramble (food scientists call it “gelation”), foam, and cook just like eggs — and even though the Just Egg now makes an omelet just like the one you’d get from a chicken egg, there’s still work to do to imitate all egg functions.
Consumers rely on the versatility of eggs. We use them for baking, breading, frying, boiling, and lots of other preparation methods. No one has yet made a plant-based egg that can beat eggs for every task, and so, while plant-based eggs have carved out their market niche, they can’t wholly replace chicken eggs yet.
But there’s one major egg consumer who doesn’t care about egg versatility: the makers of prepared food for restaurants and retailers. These suppliers buy eggs in huge volumes for millions of egg sandwiches, millions of servings of scrambled eggs, and large amounts of baked goods. And plant-based eggs can offer those purchasers some major advantages. Sodexo has announced their intent to reduce their carbon emissions, and Just’s plant-based eggs, the company says, “use 98% less water, 83% less land and emit 93% less CO2 than conventional animal sources.”
The deal, then, lets Sodexo reduce its environmental footprint while consumers get a product that tastes pretty much the same. (I couldn’t tell the difference when I tried it.)
The problem with egg agriculture
Here’s something most people probably don’t realize: Factory farming of animals for their eggs is as ugly as factory farming of animals for their meat.
Egg-laying chickens are packed by the tens of thousands into small barns where they often don’t have enough space to spread their wings, and they experience horrific health problems thanks to the rate at which they produce eggs. Watchdogs have found that it’s not even rare for chickens’ intestines to partially fall out under the strain.
The overcrowded conditions lead to massive problems with disease outbreaks. In 2014-2015, repeat outbreaks of H5N1 avian flu struck birds in 223 separate outbreaks across the country. More than 50 million hens were killed, either dying of the flu or slaughtered in efforts to prevent it from spreading further.
That’s not the only problem. While in nature a chicken might lay 10 to 15 eggs per year, on farms they lay 250 to 300 a year, and the strain does them immense internal damage. Plus, farms kill economically useless male chicks at birth, sometimes just by tossing them into a meat grinder.
What about natural or organic eggs? Disappointingly, most of those labels are meaningless. The USDA lets companies label their eggs as organic even if they come from chickens that have never been outdoors, as long as the barn where they’re stocked with thousands or tens of thousands of other chickens technically has a screened porch. The term “naturally raised” is even worse — it means nothing at all — while “natural” is about additives, not about how the birds were treated.
Another label, “cage-free,” isn’t meaningless — it’s a real improvement in welfare for the chickens, which get enough space to flap their wings and turn around. But massive barns, no outdoor access, dangerous overcrowding, and intestinal damage remain risks. Some states have passed laws requiring that animals have access to outdoor space, but the egg industry has bitterly opposed such rules.
That’s why eggless eggs are an important element in the fight against factory farming. When we can get cheap egg-like protein from plants, we can stop engineering chickens to produce eggs at an unsustainable, life-threatening rate — without interfering with anyone’s enjoyment of a delicious food.
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