Chicken
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You’ve probably already heard about the half billion (and counting) suspect eggs that have been circulating in America’s food supply. Our small business of selling produce to local residences and restaurants have received several phone calls from people wanting the eggs from our (well loved shamelessly spoiled) hens. I had to turn them away. We don’t have very many chickens, we give them plenty of space to run about and not be crowded and they aren’t forced to lay. I like to think Estella, Lucie, Sarey, Biddy, Dora, Bella, Clementine, and Ceclia are appreciative of that!

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.

Here’s an interesting graph from the Humane Society (Sorry for the poor quality. If someone finds a better version, post the link in the comments box)

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?

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Jordanne grew up as a farm girl living in the most unlikely of places -- the concrete jungle sprawl of Los Angeles. She lives on the Urban Homestead where she shares her life with a wacky and always entertaining menagerie of goats, ducks, chickens, cats, bees, and stray animals that land up on her porch. Her passions are the natural and sustainable care of animals and her knowledge lies in successfully integrating "farm" animals into the city lifestyle. Jordanne also contributes to her family's blog called Little Homestead in the City -- chronicling this bizarre, beautiful, and often hilarious journey they're on.

20 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for writing on this subject. I have a few backyard hens but I have no desire to be in the egg business. I too wish I could respond to every request I get but I raise just enough for us and to supply my CSA. Every incident like this makes me more uncomfortable with the current state of our food distribution system.

  2. Out of curiosity… is there any information on Salmonella, backyard chicken raising, and the deep littering method? After quite a bit of searching information, this is the method that I had decided to use with my flock, and it seems to be working out, but I was just curious about it especially after I read:

    “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.”

    I do stir it up and add more bedding quite often, and my chicks go out all day long so they’re really only in the coop overnight (which of course lessens the amount of poo in there). Some more info on deep littering if you hadn’t heard of it: http://www.backyardchickens.com/forum/viewtopic.php?id=70&p=1

    • Yes, thanks for pointing this out. Deep littering method is very effective. Generally, what I meant was leaving manure on the surface can cause chickens to track through it and then into the nests (and on the eggs). Deep litter method does stir up the bedding to keep a layer of manure from building up and chickens from tracking it everywhere. 🙂 Thanks!

  3. Thanks so much for your effort in compiling this data. Our Ducks are much happier when the are free in the yard from early morn to dusk. We try to limit their lock down time as much as possible. Eating a natural diet allows them to produce at their own pace and makes for great tasting eggs. Fortunately we have a large space to accommodate them.

  4. This is great advice. Thank you for posting.

    There are other suggestions offered at the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the USDA web site. Also see signs you should look for in detecting an unhealthy chicken.

    You might want to visit their site where there is also a link to a video about poultry health and an announcement of a contest to name their rooster mascot.

    Here’s the site URL:
    http://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/birdbiosecurity/index.htm

  5. Thank you so much for this post. We’ve had backyard chickens on our little urban lot for a year and I wash the eggs…..yikes! I had no idea about the shell softening but we often have poo on the eggs and I thought the bacteria would pass to the egg once we cracked it into the bowl. Does the brush remove the bacteria?

    • The article says to “wash the eggs before you use them and in warm water.” You don’t want to wash them before you store them, but you can wash them immediately before use if you are concerned about bacteria.

  6. Thanks. My pullets haven’t laid any eggs yet, but I had never heard not to clean the eggs in water right after collecting. I KNOW I would have done that. Knowing how easy and fun having chicken is, I can’t imagine not having them. Local and backyard egg raising would ease the strain on the mass production machine in place in our country by so much.

    Isn’t it something like 30 million eggs recalled so far? I just think that waste is so sad. Animals were in conditions that I consider torture to produce this mass destroying of eggs and probably birds.

    Right now, I am eating local eggs, but I am really looking forward to our first backyard brown beauties.

  7. HI Jordanne-
    As you know, we’ve been through the whole salmonella mill here in the UK – not to mention the whole foot and mouth mill – and you will find, the next thing that will happen, is big agribusiness will actively attempt to BLAME the back yarder for the presence of the infection.
    First, they will appear on news programmes, ‘expressing concern’ that perhaps small hobby farmers ‘won’t be well enough trained’ or ‘have enough knowledge’ to deal with these outbreaks, and their little campaign will reach a crescendo when they insist that all small farmers/ hobbyists ought really to be registered …. and we can all see where that’s going, and how it tightens their stranglehold on the market.

    Remember where you heard it first!

    Lets get our retaliation in first! It is NOT EVER the small farmer or hobbyist who starts these MASSIVE OUTBREAKS of disease, which require squalid and overcrowded conditions to take hold, it is ALWAYS oversized, over greedy agribusiness. Trust me. Put the word out!

    • This is so true, Jackie! It’s always blamed on the small famer /backyard farmer. The US had it with the Newcastle disease of a couple years back and then with Bird Flu. With the Newcastle, they slaughtered hundreds of birds in small farms and hobbyists backyards. I don’t recall a large egg/meat industry losing their flock!

      It’s always a fuss in the news over “is urban chickens spreading the bird flu?” Seriously? I know when my chicken is sick. Tell me, does a massive egg industy knows if one of their hens is even the slightest bit ill?

      And I remember Hoof and Mouth in the UK. It was mind blowing how they obsessed over the small farm/hobbyist. And now all the talk of registration, licensing, inspections…. urgh!

      I feel a rant coming on! Do you feel it too, Jackie? 🙂

  8. I love my chickens. When I watch them play in my yard, I feel so bad for the ones in factory farms. I hate the way that the majority of people seem to have lost touch with where their food comes from. Maybe we could get Mike Rowe to go to one of those places on ‘dirty jobs’. That’s about the only way a lot of Americans would even begin to think about the chickens that lay their eggs and the conditions they suffer.

  9. What makes me crazy is that our government is trying to centralize our food system while using the excuse that it’s for “biosecurity.” Wouldn’t decentralization be a better way to do this? Small farmers have to jump through hoops while these large corporations can do whatever they want (multiple violations and still haven’t been shut down?).

  10. I will not be giving up my small flock anytime soon!! Having your own source of food is your best defense against these outbreaks whether it be eggs, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, etc. that have been in the news in the last few years.

  11. Thank you so much for sharing this Jordanne! I think the thing that concerns me most now out of all of this, is that now the FDA is talking about pasteurizing eggs before selling them. They say that not only does it change the flavor of the egg, it can also change the nutritional content of it as well.

    Isn’t it bad enough that they pasteurize milk?!?! It’s a well known fact how much healthier and nutritive raw milk is for the human body as opposed to its processed pasteurized counterpart.

    And we all know how the FDA is cracking down on farmers selling raw milk now because it’s just so “horrible” and “scary” and “bad”! (Can you feel the sarcasm dripping from my finger tips?) And it makes me wonder if our eggs will be next. Will backyard chicken keepers be the targets of an unfounded FDA crack down next? Truly does make one wonder.

    ~Kelly

  12. As a small farmer they / we have the ability to know our customers and get in touch with them easily and quickly if there is ever a “scare”. our own personal responsibility is our “trackback”. there would never be a large outbreak/ scare of this size when you know your farms and they know the customers.

  13. We have half a dozen backyard ducks, and they tend to produce more than we can (or do, as the case may be) eat in a day. What do you suggest we do when we want to give the eggs away as a gift to someone? I ask because I feel like folks think our eggs look dirty (sitting out on our counter unwashed), and I think they’d be horrified if I brought unwashed eggs to them. What do you do, for instance, when you do sell your eggs?

    Thanks!

    • Here’s what Jordanne says in the article: “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.”

      Using the sandpaper or stiff, dry brush would remove the *yuckies* for gifting or selling your eggs to others.

  14. I know that chicken manure is used as a feed supplement for feed lot cattle. I wonder if this chicken factory supplemented (stretched) their feed. A closed loop like this would be a perfect storm for salmonella (not an unbelievable circumstance for this or any other factory farm). Sort of the same scenario for mad cow disease.

  15. Most towns and cities will shut down the home owner who has fowl or other live stock within 30 minutes of you aquireing them! So you must be outside city limits.

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