Thanks to the recall of hundreds of millions eggs from the now infamous chicken farms in Iowa, consumers are falling prey to the belief that paying more for eggs that are free-range, organic or local means they are getting a safer product.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
They face the same or greater risk of contamination as any other egg. Nonetheless, demand for organic and free-range eggs has shot through the roof as consumers run scared from conventionally farmed eggs.
The fear is widespread. Here are some of the online comments from an NPR story on the egg recall (Some of them I’m still struggling to make sense of.):
“The salmonella in this egg scare is found INSIDE the eggs...the result of MONSANTO feed, GMO grains with antibiotic marker genes.”
“It's like the food industry and agribusiness don't have dirty secrets -- they ARE a dirty secret.”
“How could you expect a giant silo full of HOT chicken feed NOT to contain bacteria? Unless you thought it contained sufficient antibiotics?”
And here are comments from the discussion of a CBS News story:
“Lots of people sell pastured eggs on craigslist. Not always are they certified organic, but they are raised humanely and as nature intended. NOT in battery cages eating crap and suffering miserably.”
“Profit is the bottom line, not food safety or animal comfort. Millions of chickens are crammed into tiny cages that never see the light of day resulting in overcrowding which leads to unsanitary conditions. Do yourself a favor and watch the movie "Food, Inc." and have your eyes opened! Buy organic, free range and where possible, buy locally. And support laws that protect farm animals. Shouldn't be too hard to figure out that happy, healthy animals produce safe and healthy food.”
“The egg factories have all but eliminated the small, local poultry and egg farmer. The little fellow used to raise his chickens in the fresh air and sunshine.”
HSUS weighs in The Humane Society of the United States, of course, added their two cents and asserted that housing chickens is unsanitary and that "cramming 100,000 birds or more under a single roof in tiny battery cages" creates a large amount of contaminated airborne fecal dust, which then spreads salmonella among birds.
I’ve found all this quite entertaining. We have a small flock of 20 free-range chickens on our farm, and “unsanitary” is an understatement. We regularly have to wash manure off the eggs after they’ve been picked from their nests on the floor of the barn, and the chickens frequently root through other animals’ manure or whatever else they come across.
As for inhumane housing of chickens in cages, free-range is no viable alternative in our experience, especially after watching chickens enforce pecking order and mercilessly inflict pain on those lowest on the social ladder. Newborn chicks are also easy prey for predators, such as a local horned owl that has made a meal out of almost every chick born in the last few weeks at my parent’s farm.
Having this knowledge, our chickens would definitely be housed and segregated if we were in the commercial egg business.
Of course, I am by no means giving a pass for the bad management at Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms – the producers guilty for sickening over 1,500 people with salmonella. But paying double the price for eggs because they were grown locally or free-range just doesn’t make any sense (Unless you’re buying for nutritional value. According to one private study, free-range eggs may be more nutritious than conventional eggs.)
But when it comes to safety, about the only thing that really makes sense if you want to stop salmonella is pretty simple: Cook your food. You can forget buying local or organic.