This facts and figures being put into the news bothers me on so many levels. If you are acquainted with me or have read our blog for awhile, you know I favor smaller agriculture practices on a backyard level. I understand US farmers work hard to support their families and my apologies if you’re a chicken farmer who is a part of the distributor(s) being investigated. But isn’t the massive numbers of eggs needing to be shipped all across the country part of the problem?
The egg industry has consolidated over recent years, placing fewer, larger businesses in control over much of the nation’s egg supply to consumers. This current salmonella outbreak has raised questions about federal inspections of egg farms that should have been addressed years ago. The FDA oversees inspections of shell eggs, while the Agriculture Department is in charge of inspecting other egg products.
While egg-associated Salmonella infections can stem from fecal bacteria winding up on the outside of an egg, in many cases, they come from infected hens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In infected hens, Salmonella can infect the ovaries and contaminate their eggs before the shells are formed.
Every scientific study published in the last 5 years found increased Salmonella rates in cage operations, including a 2010 study that found 7 times greater odds of Salmonella Enteriditis contamination in operations caging hens. About 95 percent of egg-laying hens in the United States are confined in cages so small, the animals can’t even spread their wings.
Hens in both conventional, battery-cage operations and organic operations can be infected with Salmonella, but the good news is that it’s less likely to happen in organic hens. Chickens raised with organic practices can’t be given routine antibiotics, which means they can’t be crammed by the thousands into factory farms.
A 2008 survey by the UK Soil Association, which certifies food in Britain as organic, found that large flocks of caged hens were 19 percent more likely to be contaminated with Salmonella than organically raised hens and 17 percent more likely to be contaminated than free-range or pastured hens. Whether the same would hold true in the US egg industry is unclear, but the Association did find that rates of Salmonella were directly proportional to the size of the flock. The larger the flock, the more likely the hens were to be contaminated.
The two Iowa farms (Wright Country Egg and Hilandale Farms) that are recalling the eggs share suppliers of chickens and feed as well as ties to an Iowa business routinely cited for violating state and federal law.
Businessman Austin “Jack” DeCoster owns Wright County Egg and Quality Egg. Wright County Egg recalled 380 million eggs Aug. 13 after it was linked to more than 1,000 cases of salmonella poisoning. DeCoster is no stranger to controversy in his food and farm operations:
- In 1994, the state of Iowa assessed at least four separate penalties against DeCoster Farms for environmental violations, many of them involving hog waste.
- In 1997, DeCoster Egg Farms agreed to pay $2 million in fines to settle citations brought in 1996 for health and safety violations at DeCoster’s farm in Turner, Maine. The nation’s labor secretary at the time, Robert Reich, said conditions were “as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop.” Reich’s successor, Alexis Herman, called the state of the farms “simply atrocious,” citing unguarded machinery, electrical hazards, exposure to harmful bacteria and other unsanitary conditions.
- In 2000, Iowa designated DeCoster a “habitual violator” of environmental regulations for problems that included hog manure runoff into waterways. The label made him subject to increased penalties and prohibited him from building new farms.
- In 2002, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced a more than $1.5 million settlement of an employment discrimination lawsuit against DeCoster Farms on behalf of Mexican women who reported they were subjected to sexual harassment, including rape, abuse and retaliation by some supervisory workers at DeCoster’s Wright County plants.
- In 2007, 51 workers were arrested during an immigration raid at six DeCoster egg farms. His farms had been the subject of at least three previous raids.
- In June 2010, Maine Contract Farming, the successor company to DeCoster Egg Farms, agreed in state court to pay $25,000 in penalties and to make a one-time payment of $100,000 to the Maine Department of Agriculture over animal cruelty allegations that were spurred by a hidden-camera investigation by an animal welfare organization.
So what does this mean for backyard chickens?
If you have ever wondered about raising your own layers, but weren’t really sure it was for you, perhaps now would be a good time to seriously consider it.
So why would backyard chickens be less problematic? Because you will (most likely — HOPEFULLY!!!) not have them in the battery-hen type conditions. If you’ve seen pictures of caged layers, you probably know the hens aren’t healthy. Nothing in those close-quarter conditions could compare to the hens in your backyard that are allowed to lounge in the sun, dust-bathe and lay eggs in nests. I’m not a scientist and I’m not claiming your backyard chicken will never produce any salmonella bacteria, but it would appear that birds and coops that have access to sunlight are less likely to support conditions that keep Salmonella viable.
The likelihood of an organic egg from a truly free-ranged or well-cared for backyard hen is far less likely to be contaminated with this pathogen because the environment isn’t as much of a breeding ground for the salmonella bacteria. At least in comparison to a large, over-crowded hen house on a massive scale.
According the the National Agricultural Biosecurity Center, Salmonella bacteria ….
- survives well in wet environments shielded from sunlight.
- survives well between pH 4 to 8 and temperature between 8∞C and 45∞C
- is a facultative anaerobic bacteria so it survives well under low oxygen tension, such as that found in manure slurry pits
- is destroyed by the drying effects of wind, by the bactericidal effect of UV irradiation from the sun, and by disinfectant agents, such as chlorine solutions, iodines, quarternary ammoniums, and phenolics
How to prevent salmonella in your backyard flock
Basic sanitation is always appropriate in any animal operation. Be educated.
- Collect eggs often.
- Don’t stress the hens with unnatural ways of forcing egg laying. Excessive egg laying can weaken hens and cause disease issues.
- Clean your coop on a regular basis. Don’t let manure sit around for more than absolutely necessary. Keep the nesting boxes free of manure.
- Watch over the health of your hens. Provide them with the right nutrients and minerals. A healthy bird resists all sorts of diseases.
- Practice biosecurity
- Don’t wash off the bloom from the egg. If the egg is soiled, you can use a dry, stiff nail brush, fine sandpaper or a rough pan scour pad to remove manure that might have caked on. Only wash the eggs before you use them and in warm water. Do this only as a last resort. Dirty eggs might be covered with bacteria, which have trouble getting through the shell so long as it’s dry. As soon as the shell is wet with cold water, the pores of the shell opens and germs pass through more easily. And then, as the egg cools even more the contents shrink a little, causing a partial vacuum inside that tends to suck foreign matter into the egg.
Does anyone else want to add a comment or a tip for discouraging salmonella?