In October of 2013, 388 people in 23 states were infected with antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella bacteria from contaminated Foster Farms chicken. Last month, on July 31, the USDA announced long-awaited new regulations and a new inspection system for poultry products. But many food-safety groups are skeptical, since under the new system, many duties that were formerly assigned to USDA inspectors have been turned over to in-house plant employees. Since the employees are paid by the chicken factories, critics can’t help but wonder if they have an incentive to overlook problems in poultry production.
These recent concerns, along with the contamination complications always associated with chicken and egg production, are leading more and more Americans to take matters into their own hands and raise backyard chickens for eggs and meat.
The Problem with Big-Production Chicken and Eggs
98 percent of America’s chickens are produced by large-scale corporations, which fall into the category of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
The sole object of CAFOs is to turn a profit by turning animals into meat, and so chickens are housed in facilities so densely packed that they have no room to even turn around, let alone roam, forage, and exercise. Pastured chickens help to enrich soil with their manure, but in commercial farms where so many chickens are crammed into a space that is much too small, huge volumes of chicken excrement pile up. CAFO animals in the U.S. produce six times the volume of fecal matter of all humans on earth.
The question of what to do with all that chicken excrement has become a problem of epic proportions. How do we keep it from contamination our water? (Answer: we don’t, as evidenced by the 11 million gallons of chicken-manure polluted water that were dumped into the San Luis Wildlife Refuge in 1998.)
Antibiotics and Arsenic
Filthy conditions mean that chickens at factory farms have to be administered antibiotics in order to withstand disease and survive to maturity; indeed, to combat disease and chickens in CAFOs are administered antibiotics on a daily basis. Nearly three-quarters of antibiotics in the United States are used in CAFOs.
Yet despite antibiotic use, bacteria are still present in chicken. A 2013 Consumer Report study tested more than 340 brands of chicken from national grocery stores and regional markets in 26 states and found enterococcus bacteria present in 79.8 percent of samples, and E. coli present in 65.2 percent of samples.
This indicates something truly frightening: the bacteria found in poultry are becoming antibiotic-resistant, which is why they’re becoming a greater threat to humans. About half (49.7 percent) of chicken samples tested positive for at least one multidrug-resistant bacterium, and some samples contained more than one multidrug-resistant bacterium.
For decades chickens have been treated with arsenic-based drugs to promote rapid growth. The trace amounts of arsenic remaining in cooked chicken have been associated by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future with cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, adverse pregnancy outcomes, and lung, bladder and skin cancer.v Last year three of the four arsenical drugs used on poultry were banned by the FDA, but only after four years of petitioning.
Once chickens are slaughtered, they are processed at a rate of 140 birds per minute on a factory production line. At that rate, there isn’t adequate time to remove the remaining fecal content on carcasses, so chickens are plunged into a chemical bath that includes chlorine, tri-sodium phosphate, and hypobromous acid.vi The government does not require labeling or reporting of these harmful chemicals, so most consumers have no idea that they’re consuming them.
Are Eggs Exempt?
Processed chicken isn’t the only problem, unfortunately. In 2010, a staggering half billion eggs produced by Wright County Egg of Iowa, were recalled for salmonella contamination. By the time of the recall, the eggs had been distributed to seventeen different states.
If you’re paying extra for organic, free-range eggs at your local supermarket, the eggs you buy are far less likely to contain salmonella. But they still may not be the pristine, unpolluted superfood you think you’re buying. Eggshells are highly porous, but freshly-laid eggs have an oil coating on the outside of the shell known as the bloom that keeps chemicals or pathogens from getting inside. Government regulations, however, require eggs sold in supermarkets to be power-washed. This usually involves cleaning agents like chlorine, which is pretty harmless itself but can react dangerously with organic materials (like the protein in eggs to form carcinogenic disinfection byproducts.
Obviously, government regulatory agencies can’t be relied upon to guard us against food ills and keep unsafe food off the market. If they could, the horrific conditions of large-scale chicken farms would have already been reformed, the FDA would allow antibiotic use in CAFOs only for animals that are sick, and products would be labeled with the chemicals used to wash and disinfect them so that consumers would know the risks.
If the horrors of the commercial chicken and meat industry weren’t enough to convince you, there are a few things you should know about raising your own chickens.
Raising chickens is cost-effective. Chickens are foragers, so you can supplement their feed diet by turning them loose in the yard to hunt for insects, weeds, and weed seeds. Besides that, they’re virtual garbage disposals for food scraps from the kitchen. Carrot peelings, crusts of bread, leftovers—they’ll eat anything but watermelon rinds and corncobs (and you should never, ever feed them uncooked rice or potato peels, as those could kill them).
According to author and expert Patricia Foreman, one chicken can consume and recycle about seven pounds of food scraps in a month. This means that as long as you’re carefully collecting your kitchen scraps, your feed bill won’t be that bad. And, as we’ve previously discussed, adding a chicken coop boosts the value of your home because more and more Americans are interested in raising chickens, so it’s worth the investment even if you’re not in your “forever” home yet.
Raising chickens is good for your yard and garden. All that organic stuff your chickens will be eating makes for amazing, well, poop. Chicken manure is nitrogen-rich and can be mixed with compost for fantastic fertilizer (just keep in mind that due to the high nitrogen content manure will be too “hot” for young plants; but you can make a manure “tea” that is perfect for them).
Since chickens eat weed seeds that blow into your yard, and insects, they’ll help keep your garden healthy. Just don’t let chickens into the garden itself, since they love vegetables almost as much as you do. Any barrier that’s twice as tall as the chickens should do the trick to keep them out.
Since chickens consume so many insects, their manure is protein-rich for fertilizing vegetables with high protein content, like broccoli and spinach. You should throw your eggshells into the compost too, since they’re rich in calcium.
The meat will be free from harmful chemicals and contaminants. If you decide to raise meat chickens, or cull your flock from time to time of hens that aren’t laying as much, you’ll be able to fill your freezer with meat that is antibiotic-, arsenic-, and chemical-free, not to mention more nutritious since the chickens aren’t just fed on soybeans and corn.
We’ve discussed the advantages of raising ducks instead of chickens for backyard protein: ducks are hardier in cold and in heat and more resistant to disease, drakes (male ducks) are quieter than roosters and therefore allowed in most cities (roosters aren’t), ducks won’t tear up your garden when they’re foraging for food.
But here a few additional things to keep in mind: chickens don’t require a pond or standing water source, so you don’t have to worry about mosquito-breeding or small children drowning, and you don’t have to change out a pool of water every day. And while ducks require about 2 ½ pounds of food to produce one pound of eggs, chickens only require 1 ½ pounds of food to accomplish the same output.
For some, the biggest advantage to chicken is the meat. Duck meat is rich and nutritious, but chicken is ubiquitous, lean, and for many of us, our favorite go-to meat for everything from soup to tikka masala. After all, Americans consume more chicken than any other meat.
The eggs will be unlike any you’ve ever eaten. Those who have never harvested their own chicken eggs before will have a hard time believing just how different they are from factory farm eggs. Because backyard chickens consume a rich and varied diet (instead of just corn and soybean feed), their eggs contain significantly more beta-carotene, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins A and E. The egg whites aren’t runny and whip up quickly in recipes; the yolks are a rich, dark yellow and have a richer taste than store-bought eggs.
And as previously discussed, you can eschew the evils of washing your eggs when you grow them yourself, since you won’t be worried about salmonella from overcrowded chicken farms. Instead of washing your eggs with water (or, heaven forbid, soap), just dry-wipe them and keep a sanding block, piece of sandpaper, or steel wool scrubber handy just for eggs and use it to gently scrub off any feathers or manure stuck to the eggs. (You can wash them right before you’re about to use them.) By leaving the bloom of the egg intact, you can store your eggs for months, long enough to get through the winter when your chickens won’t be laying as many eggs.