Once upon a time, before industrial agriculture began keeping tens of thousands of genetically super-charged chickens in huge barns, we rarely had to fear that our eggs and chicken might be contaminated with salmonella, campylobacter, Escherichia coli (E. coli) and other sometimes deadly pathogens. Many people, even in the city, were raising chickens. Sunny-side-up eggs seldom made us ill. There were small risks before, but nothing like we have now.
Today, salmonella often lurks inside industrial eggs and campylobacter bacteria are found on up to 88 percent of chicken meat because the U.S. industrial system stresses poultry in multiple ways, including those listed below, making chickens less able to resist infections:
- First off, they raise chickens in extremely crowded conditions — a practice that keeps production costs down but pretty much guarantees that germs can easily spread through flocks.
- Hybrid birds have been bred to develop rapidly, but at the expense of more robust immune systems. Sometimes the birds' organs can't develop fast enough to support their bodies. Unless they get the right amounts of exactly the right food, their legs or hearts will collapse.
- Laying hens are bred to produce so many eggs so fast that when they are “spent” (after just two years) their bones are sometimes so brittle that the birds can no longer even be used to make canned chicken soup.
- The chicks are never with their mothers, which means they can’t pick up the beneficial microbes they need for a healthy digestive system. This leaves a void for pathogenic microbes to move in. Studies have shown that chicks naturally develop protection against disease microbes if they are exposed to manure from adult birds. (So, if you raise chicks that are not with their mother, use a probiotic product to help them get a strong start, and expose them to adult chicken poop when they're about 4 weeks old.)
- Laying chickens are debeaked to prevent them from pecking each other to death due to boredom in their tiny cages. They never see the light of day.
- Industrial producers force their layers to molt all at once, as quickly as possible, by restricting their feed for several weeks. (Hens don't lay eggs while they are molting.)
- The use of antimicrobial drugs for rapid growth disrupts birds' gut flora and increases their susceptibility to salmonella, spreading this pathogen throughout a flock.
Poultry scientists have known for decades that these intensive, inhumane practices contribute to an increased presence of pathogens in industrial eggs and meat. A 2006 study in the Journal of Food Protection confirmed that “free-range chickens on family farms are exposed to more diverse microflora than are chickens raised at commercial farms, and therefore acquire a wider array of microorganisms, including microbes that are inhibitory to campylobacters."
Taxpayer money is now being spent to convince us that visitors should wear special suits and “disinfect” their shoes and vehicle tires before they enter poultry facilities, including backyard coops. And the federal regulatory agencies, often unduly influenced by the fears of Big Ag, have recently proposed requirements that certified organic chickens be given access to outdoor space, but that the space must be fenced and covered to prevent contact with wild birds, as a way, they believe, to reduce contamination of eggs after hens come into contact with wild bird feces.
Continuing to try to protect highly stressed chickens from microbes — instead of breeding birds that are strong enough to fend off disease and raising chickens using more natural, less-stressful production systems — is not the right course, folks. If you're concerned about this wrong-headed proposal for chicken production, let your elected officials know how you feel.
Read more: Interested in raising your own chickens for meat? Check out Raising Broiler Chickens for more information on choosing the right breeds, feeds and more.
Cheryl Long is the editor in chief of MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and a leading advocate for more sustainable lifestyles. She leads a team of editors which produces high quality content that has resulted in MOTHER EARTH NEWS being rated as one North America’s favorite magazines. Long lives on an 8-acre homestead near Topeka, Kan., powered in part by solar panels, where she manages a large organic garden and a small flock of heritage chickens. Prior to taking the helm at MOTHER EARTH NEWS, she was an editor at Organic Gardening magazine for 10 years. Connect with her on Google+.