07/10/2012 03:56 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2012

Invisible Food

"The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about." - David Foster Wallace

In other words: What we think we know for sure is often bizarrely wrong.

Here's an example: Have a blueberry muffin with your latte this morning? Or sneak a chocolate chip cookie during your work break? Dip your carrots in ranch dressing during the game? Or have a bowl of angel hair pasta for dinner? Living inside all of these products is an ingredient that would cause us to hesitate before the next bite -- if we only knew its source. Of the 79 billion eggs laid in the U.S. last year, over one-third are used as ingredients in the food all of us buy every single day. And 95% of the egg ingredients that end up in our food come from female chickens that are confined in battery cages, small wire enclosures that afford each hen a space smaller than a single sheet of letter-sized paper. It's an outdated and inefficient system -- and it's invisible.

See, eggs serve a functional purpose in our food: They make our muffins plump, help our dressings hold together, enable our cookies not to crumble too easily. But, cruelty feeds and thrives on all this abstraction. Empathy depends on us to consciously take the invisible, and make it real. Our consumption of eggs, in many ways, represent the manifestation of the problem. Something that impacts our health (cholesterol), degrades our local and global environment (GHG emissions and waste runoff), and erodes our collective values (see definition of compassion) operates much like the old fish in the water tale: Two young fish are swimming along and happen to meet an older fish swimming the opposite way. The older fish says: "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes: "What the hell is water?"

A few more things to consider before reaching for that egg-soaked cookie next to you:

-- If we're only eating eggs (and their ingredients) from female chickens, it's worth asking: What happens to all the male chicks? All of them, over 250 million a year, are destroyed. Some are suffocated in plastic containers; others are tossed into a wood-chipping-like machine.

-- Last year, half a billion eggs were recalled because of food poisoning.

-- Female chickens might never feel the sun or touch the soil.

So, what to do? Eat fewer eggs and less food with egg ingredients. Seek out plant-based products that take the animals (and the cholesterol) out of the equation. And, finally, send a note to your representative in Congress to support H.R. 3798, legislation that would make the lives of laying hens just a bit better.

This system of animal farming craves our ignorance -- but it also fears our empathy. Which one will you give them?