NOTE: I realize I haven’t posted in a while. My dad had a couple of strokes (which he is now recovering from nicely, so I’ve been a bit preoccupied with that. But back to back yard chickens.
I loved chickens as a kid. I was definitely the kid who was snuggling cute, fuzzy, manure-dusted chicks up to my face and kissing their fuzzy little heads. I also somehow managed to not be one of the kids who got Salmonellosis in the process. In addition to playing with chicks and chickens, we often ate raw cookie or brownie dough/batter made from our backyard eggs. I think we were vaguely aware this might not be the smartest idea, but persisted nonetheless.*
As eating trends towards organic and homegrown, the number of people keeping backyard flocks has also grown. So have the number of outbreaks. So why has this occurred? Aren’t homegrown eggs better for you, and probably safer than ones from factory farms?
Yes and no.
It’s possible there’s a nutritional value to eating homegrown eggs, though there isn’t much data to back that up (future research study idea, fellow food scientists?) However, when it comes to food safety, the picture is even murkier. Here are a few common myths about Salmonella and barnyard hens:
Myth 1: my chickens came from another farmer, not a hatchery, so they are less likely to have Salmonella.
Fact: The chickens probably originated from a hatchery at some point. Chickens can pass on Salmonella directly to their offspring, so it’s entirely possible to still carry Salmonella several generations on.
Myth 2: my chickens are free range and healthier than conventional chickens, so they’re less likely to have Salmonella.
Fact: Salmonella is a normal inhabitant of chickens and other birds. Your free-range chickens can acquire Salmonella easily from eating seeds/grass/etc contaminated by wild birds or animals.
Myth 3: my chickens are very healthy, so they probably don’t have Salmonella.
Fact: Salmonella doesn’t make chickens sick. They can be perfectly healthy and still carry Salmonella.
Myth 4: But I got all the poop off the egg before I used it, so it’s fine.
Fact 4: Chickens can carry Salmonella in their ovaries and deposit it into the egg during formation. Only cooking thoroughly guarantees that the egg is Salmonella free.
I’d like to note I’m all in favor of backyard flocks as long as their owners follow some basic safety and hygiene practices. I’m also hoping to investigate the prevalence of Salmonella flocks in New England over the next several years, so if you live in that area and want to participate, contact me.
*In a case of do as I say, not as I do, I still occasionally eat products with raw eggs. You can call that informed risk or stupidity if you like, but as I’m not in any of the risk categories at the moment, I’d most likely just have a case of bidirectional fluid loss for several days if I got unlucky.