By Dr. Mercola
When raised the way nature intended, both chickens and their eggs are healthy sources of high-quality nutrients that many are deficient in — especially high-quality protein and healthy fat.
Eggs contain complete proteins, meaning they provide the eight essential amino acids, essential to the building, maintenance and repair of your skin, internal organs, muscles, and more.
They also contain carotenoids such as lutein and zeaxanthin, which are important for good eyesight, and choline, which is needed for the normal development of memory, as well as betaine, tryptophan and tyrosine, all of which are important for the prevention of cardiovascular disease.
Cholesterol is also important for health, and contrary to popular belief, the cholesterol in eggs will not adversely affect your cholesterol levels.1
However, to reap all the benefits chicken and eggs have to offer, it's important to realize that not all chickens and eggs are the same. It all depends on how they were raised. I strongly advise sticking with free-range organic varieties.
Not only is the nutritional profile of eggs and chickens raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) inferior to their pastured, free-ranging counterparts, they're also far more likely to be contaminated with salmonella.
Organic Egg Scorecard Cuts Through Confusion and Misleading Labels
While there's no way to guarantee 100 percent safety all the time, the benefits of free-range poultry are becoming more well-recognized, and reduced disease risk is definitely part of that benefits package.
As reported by The Guardian,2 sale of cage-free and organic eggs is on the rise, and five U.S. states now ban caged hens. Unfortunately, loopholes abound, allowing CAFO-raised chickens and eggs to masquerade as "free-range" and "organic."
Both consumers and corporate customers, such as McDonald's, Nestle, and General Mills, are now demanding egg producers convert to cage-free methods. It's worth noting that "cage-free" still does not mean the chickens were raised under ideal conditions.
They're not raised in cages, but they may still not have access to the outdoors. So there are still significant differences even between "cage-free" and "free range" (or "pastured") eggs. With so many loopholes and lack of transparency, it can be very confusing to sort through it all.
The Cornucopia Institute addressed these issues in a recent egg report. According to Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, there's a factory farm takeover of the egg industry underway, with large CAFOs now controlling 80 percent of the organic egg market.
Yet less than 9 percent of hens raised in the U.S. are raised without cages.3 The organic label simply means the hens have been raised on organic feed. It is not an indication that they've been humanely or sustainably raised.
"For this report, we have visited or surveilled, via aerial photography/satellite imagery, a large percentage of certified egg production in the United States, and surveyed all name-brand and private-label industry marketers," the Cornucopia Institute writes.
And, according to Mark A. Kastel, The Cornucopia Institute's co-director and senior farm policy analyst: "It's obvious that a high percentage of the organic eggs on the market are illegal and should, at best, be labeled 'produced with organic feed,' rather than bearing the USDA-certified organic logo."
"'Scrambled Eggs: Separating Factory Farm Egg Production from Authentic Organic Agriculture,'4 will empower consumers and wholesale buyers who want to invest their food dollars to protect hard-working family farmers that are in danger of being forced off the land by a landslide of eggs from factory farms ...
[As] consumers have become concerned about the humane treatment of animals, and are also seeking out eggs that are superior in flavor and nutrition, a number of national marketers have found success in distributing 'pasture'-produced eggs.
'There is a fair bit of overreach and the exploitation of this term is well covered in our report,' Kastel explained. 'The organic egg scorecard enables concerned consumers to select authentic brands delivering the very best quality eggs regardless of the hyperbole on the label' ..."
Should you find the organic egg brand you've been buying is a sham and feel betrayed, take action by putting the pressure on USDA Secretary Vilsack to replace the current management at The National Organic Program. You can do so by signing the Cornucopia Institute's proxy letter.
CAFOs Are Hotbeds for Salmonella
As noted by Reveal News in their "Farm to Fork: Uncovering hazards in our food systems" series,5 Americans eat about 85 pounds of chicken per person each year, and about 25 percent of raw chicken sold in American supermarkets are contaminated with salmonella.
About 1 million Americans are sickened and some 380 die from salmonella infection each year, and contaminated chicken and eggs are among the most common sources of this foodborne illness.
Today, we also have antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella to contend with, which makes potential contamination even more worrisome. It's important to realize that even chicken that passes all federal food safety requirements may still be hazardous to your health.
As reported by Reveal News:6
"There's no mandate to control [salmonella] on the farms or hatcheries that raise chickens for slaughter. Limited testing is required only at the final step: the slaughterhouse.
By that time, chickens already can be carrying the bacteria in their guts, its natural habitat. Or it can be on their feathers, feet or skin from their feces. It can spread from carcass to carcass during processing. While processors try to clean the bacteria off the skin and meat with chemicals, some often escapes removal ...
Chickens can get salmonella from the breeding flocks that produce them. The chicks can pick it up at hatcheries, grow houses or pastures on farms where they fatten up. Any measures that producers take to control salmonella in those places are entirely voluntary."
Beware: U.S. Rules Allow the Sale of Salmonella-Contaminated Chicken
Surprising as it may seem, it's perfectly legal to sell salmonella-contaminated chicken meat. The federal salmonella standard allows 7.5 percent of whole chickens tested in the processing plant to be contaminated.
What's more, the standards make no distinction between the more harmless strains of salmonella, and those that are the most dangerous, including drug-resistant strains. Essentially, the food safety rules include the general assumption that you will handle and cook it properly to kill off any and all harmful bacteria.
However, cross-contamination can easily occur while the raw chicken is prepared, spreading to other foods via contaminated cutting boards, countertops, or utensils, so caution is always recommended when handling raw chicken. You can find official guidance on the proper handling and cooking of raw chicken on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Website.7
Keeping a designated cutting board for meats and one for other produce is a basic step that will help cut down on the risk of cross contamination. Also avoid washing your chicken, as this actually increases your risk of food poisoning by spreading bacteria around your kitchen sink and neighboring surfaces.
So Far, Efforts to Implement Stronger Salmonella Standards Have Failed
In 2015 legislation was introduced that would require meats contaminated with bacteria resistant to certain antibiotics to be recalled by the USDA. The Center for Science in the Public Interest also petitioned the USDA to declare four specific strains of antibiotic-resistant salmonella as "adulterants," which would require the meat to be recalled when detected.
So far, nothing has come of these efforts, largely due to the strong opposition from the industry, which claims prices would have to be raised if salmonella were to be labeled an adulterant. According to Ashley Peterson, senior vice president for science and technology for the National Chicken Council, such a move might end up wiping out about one-third of the U.S. chicken supply.8 That tells you something about the scope of the salmonella problem!
Unfortunately, since salmonella regulations do not cover hatcheries and farms, buying local backyard chickens is not a guarantee of safety either. There are even instances of salmonella disease occurring from contact with live chickens.
For guidance on protecting yourself from illness from backyard poultry, see the Centers for Disease and Prevention's (CDC) Website.9 One key is to be vigilant about hand washing. That said, free-ranging chickens and their eggs do tend to be safer than CAFO varieties.
For example, tests done in England found that more than 23 percent of farms with caged hens tested positive for salmonella, compared to just 4.4 percent in organic flocks, and 6.5 percent in free-range flocks. The highest prevalence of salmonella occurred in facilities holding 30,000 birds or more.
Backyard Chickens Gaining in Popularity
While factory farms may be fighting to monopolize the organic egg market, smaller backyard operations are also gaining a foothold. As noted in a recent article by Food Navigator-USA,10 the egg industry is undergoing a "renaissance" with many small-scale pasture-raised eggs now finding their way into mainstream grocery stores.
According to Betsy and Bryan Babcock, owners of Handsome Brook Farms, pasture-raised eggs are among the fastest growing segments in grocery dairy cases.
Superior taste is driving much of this growth. If you've ever tasted a fresh pasture-raised egg, with its creamy bright-orange egg yolk, you know exactly what I'm referring to. (Dull, pale yellow yolks are a sure sign you're getting eggs form caged hens that are not allowed to forage for their natural diet.)
Pastured eggs are also more nutritious, according to tests performed by Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences in 2010. Compared to CAFO eggs, pastured eggs had twice the amount of vitamin E and omega-3, a far better omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, and 38 percent more vitamin A.
The Bay Journal11 also recently wrote about the resurgence in backyard chicken farming, and the establishment of the "Animal Welfare Approved" label, which signals that the operation has documented high standards of care for both animals and environment.
Are You Ready to Try Your Hand at Raising Your Own Chickens?
In the video above, Joel Salatin gives a virtual tour of his Polyface farm in Virginia. As you can see, raising chickens in your backyard may be easier than you thought. If you are interested in the possibility of raising a few chickens yourself, a good place to begin is by asking yourself a few questions.
I also recommend visiting Joel's Polyface Farm Website for more details on raising chickens. Also be sure to look through the CDC's guidance on protecting yourself from illness from live poultry:12
- Can I dedicate some time each day? You can expect to devote about 10 minutes a day, an hour per month, and a few hours twice a year to the care and maintenance of your brood.
- Do I have enough space? They will need a minimum of 10 square feet per bird to roam, preferably more. The more foraging they can do, the healthier and happier they'll be and the better their eggs will be.
- What are the chicken regulations in my town? You will want to research this before jumping in because some places have zoning restrictions and even noise regulations (which especially apply if you have a rooster).
- Are my neighbors on board with the idea? It's a good idea to see if they have any concerns early on. When they learn they might be the recipients of occasional farm-fresh eggs, they might be more agreeable.
- Can I afford a flock? There are plenty of benefits to growing your own eggs, but saving money isn't one of them. There are significant upfront costs to getting a coop set up, plus ongoing expenses for supplies.
Healthier and Safer Chicken and Egg Sources
Besides raising your own chickens and eggs, your next best option is to source them locally, either from an organic farm or farmers market. Fortunately, finding organic pastured eggs locally is far easier than finding raw milk, as virtually every rural area has individuals with chickens.
Farmers markets are a great way to meet the people who produce your food. With face-to-face contact, you can get your questions answered and know exactly what you're buying. Better yet, visit the farm and ask for a tour. To locate a free-range pasture farm, try asking your local health food store, or check out the following organizations:
Weston Price Foundation13 has local chapters in most states, and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can easily purchase organic foods, including grass fed raw dairy products like milk and butter.
Local Harvest — This Web site will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
Farmers' Markets — A national listing of farmers' markets.
Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals — The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) — CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.
FoodRoutes — The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs, and markets near you.
The Cornucopia Institute maintains web-based tools rating all certified organic brands of eggs, dairy products, and other commodities, based on their ethical sourcing and authentic farming practices separating CAFO "organic" production from authentic organic practices.