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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Let's talk about eggs

No doubt many of you have heard the news by now - at least if you live in this part of the world.  Iowa's egg industry has been responsible for some really nasty illnesses lately.  Mind you, this is not a problem with my eggs!  No way!  I have been eating eggs from my hens for over 2 years now, and have never had any sort of gastro-intestinal problem. In fact, you know what?!  I keep my eggs ON THE COUNTER!  That's right - not in the refrigerator!  Oh, the shock!  The travesty!  The shame!!!
Let's take a minute, shall we....to learn about the egg-straordinary egg.

When a hen lays an egg, she deposits a layer of "mucoprotein" on the eggshell.  Mucoprotein?  Ewwww... what's that?!  It's a thin layer of protein composed of mucopolysaccharides!  Muco-what?  Ok, simply put, it's a layer that the hen's body deposits on the outside of the eggshell.  This protein layer protects the egg by preventing bacteria from entering through the pores (tiny holes) in the eggshell.  Mucopolysaccharides also exist in the fluid that keep your knees working properly!  They are entirely safe and healthy!  Sometimes, this layer is referred to as the "bloom" on the egg.
Most of the time, the eggs you buy in the store have been washed, commercially, before you buy them.  Why?  Well, it would be dreadful to buy an egg with a little bit of hay on it, or, heaven forbid (!!) some chicken poop!  What happens when you wash the egg?  The protective layer of protein is washed away.  That means that bacteria are now free and clear to enter the eggshell pores.  Woohoo!  Bacteria party in egg number nine!

I don't wash my eggs.  I leave them alone, on the counter, with their bloom intact.  I gently brush off hay bits or feathers.  If an egg is really dirty, I gently wash it and put it in the fridge.  When I use an egg, from the counter, I wash it immediately before use.  This means that the egg is clean, and there is no way for surface contamination to affect the egg contents when I break it open.  It also means that bacteria have about a 30 second window, if that, to contaminate my egg.  Ha!  Fat chance!!  I have left eggs on the counter, at room temperature, for over a month.  No problems have occurred.
Did you know that in France, it is actually illegal to sell washed eggs?  That's because they know that washing the egg leads to a higher chance of contamination!  It's also a fact that in France, many people store their eggs on the counter-top, and not in the refrigerator.

So back to Iowa.  What's going on with those eggs anyway?  Well, I took a course in Animal Law earlier in the summer, so I can tell you exactly what's going on with those eggs.  First of all, the hens in the egg batteries in Iowa are kept in conditions that are apparently acceptable to the egg industry.  What sort of conditions are those, you might wonder?  Well, by law, they can be kept in cages that are stacked up to 4 levels in height.  That means that the hens on level 3 are pooped on by the hens on level 4.  It also means that the hens on level 2 are pooped on by the hens on levels 3 and 4.  Finally, the hens on the dreaded level 1, are pooped on by hens on levels 2, 3 and 4!  Those poor hens are often in cages that are so filthy and poop-filled that they get their legs stuck.  See the pale, floppy combs on these hens?  Not healthy.  Not at all normal.  They should be red and perky looking.  The bright red things you can see are plastic water drippers.
Furthermore, these hens are kept in cages that give them an "ample" amount of space, according to the poultry industry standard.  How much space is that, you might wonder?  Well, the amount of floor space per hen is less than a standard sheet of paper.  Seriously!  They have 67 square inches of floor space, for their entire lives, because apparently, that's all they "need."  Oh, and there are usually 6 of them per cage.  Slightly more than 8 by 8 inches.  Let me tell you, as someone who has kept chickens for a couple of years now, chickens need a lot more space than that.  They love to run, to flap their wings, to chase one another, to take dust baths (for parasite control), to fly onto low-hanging branches, to explore, and to have time to themselves.  Here are some dust bathers.  They are so funny to watch!
Can you imagine being stuck in a small apartment your whole life with 5 roommates, each of you with 2 square feet (or less!) of floor space, with 3 floors of apartments above you with wire mesh floors through which your neighbors dump their poop?  You'd lose your mind!!  And your health!  It's no wonder that these poor birds peck out each other's feathers out of sheer boredom and aggravation.  So let's add a little blood amidst all that poop, not to mention a wide variety of insects that like to inhabit such places.
So it's not entirely surprising that under such conditions, salmonella and other bacteria have a tendency to proliferate.  It's not a real stretch, to imagine, that birds who are stuck in such conditions might become unhealthy, and might develop illnesses themselves.
So next time you're in the grocery store, considering eggs, think about where they came from.  Think about the situation those hens are living in, and what those eggs are exposed to.  Make an informed choice.  Buy from a local farmer's market, or a local farm.  Get your own hens if you can.  The "big egg industry" can only be changed little by little, and it starts with consumer choices....with people like you.

27 comments:

Before The Dawn said...

I did not know about that protective covering. We can't have chickens here, but I do miss having them around. When I was younger we had some chickens, but back then we didn't depend on them for eggs, they were just pets.

IsobelleGoLightly said...

This is a very good post Claire! We love our chickens and see how much they appreciate space, clean living and good food and green things. We also don't wash our eggs.

Flartus said...

Bravo! Whenever I have eggs that I don't know for sure were local or "free-range," I always think of the poor hen that was tortured for my breakfast. Yes, tortured, that's how I think of it.

Now, do you know much about the large "free-range" egg producers? I've heard that they're still kept in crowded, ammonia-breathing conditions with very little access to the outdoors. But I assume they at least don't have upstairs neighbors pooping on them.

Terri said...

Very nice post! Makes me happy to have my own chickens.

Tammy said...

I've kept hens for over 20 years now and we always had them when I was a kid. You are so right on how they enjoy the 'luxurious' of life. To put any animal in a small confined space w/out anything to do is inhumane. I realize that not all animals can be out on beautiful pastures, in perfect conditions, but at least give them space to move around,and things to add variety and interest to their lives. I'd rather eat 'egg beaters' than to buy the eggs from the store anymore. Thanks for the interesting post.
Tammy

Cloverleaf Art and Fibre said...

Thanks Claire. I've been lurking here for awhile, enjoying all your posts. This one really makes me cheer. It deserves a wide audience. Letters to the editor in some local papers, maybe? all the best, Margaret

Paige Madison said...

This makes me wish I could have my own chickens. I have been cage-free eggs for at least 6 months now. My next step is to find somewhere local to buy them from. Reading this just makes me wonder how much we do in the name of sanitation is actually bad for our health. I've heard a few things about unpasteurized milk for instance that says its a lot healthier than pasteurized milk.

taylorgirl6 said...

As always, Claire, your posts make me smile (and even shake my head at the state of the world today). Our neighbors and friends are slowly starting to learn the truth about chickens and eggs from having our girls around to teach them. How did society lose touch with something so simple? I must admit that I was a little taken aback when I first saw unrefrigerated eggs for sale in Ireland. Now we keep ours on the counter, too.

shadow mountain jacobs farm said...

Hi, I am new to your blog. I agree 100% It's sad to think that the food industry will compromise our health for the sake of a larger profit margin. I just watched a DVD called Food Inc. that talked about how corrupt the food industry is and how they try to hide what really goes on in raising this nations food. It's very sad. Love your blog...

Brandi Mills said...

Thanks for this article. I've always known that conditions on these farms were terrible but I never knew the details. I'd love to raise my own chickens but it's just not feasible right now. Only free range chicken eggs will be in our house from now on.

Mom L said...

Claire, I wish you weren't so far away from me! I've thought since I moved here that I should find a local source of eggs, just so I could have the satisfaction of fresh ones. Now I'm definitely going to search for a source!

Thanks for the education...

BTW - I'm doing a road trip next month to see Diane and Baby Henry!

Nancy in Iowa

Kelly said...

What?!?! You leave your eggs on the counter? Just kidding. We would if I had more counter space, but it's easier to keep them in the fridge and keep them safe from 4 year old fingers.

I think this recall and the associated illnesses will go a long way in getting people to either get their own hens or buy locally from free range hen owners.

edenhills said...

I had ten hens given to me that came from a big production situation. They had to be given space gradually because they panicked in more space. They didn't know how to roost at night or generally act like chickens. They also came with bugs requiring me to delouse them. They did finally blend in, but I always feel so bad for those birds. Excellent post!

Teresa

polly's path said...

the poor caged hens in the photo look exactly what my rescued hens looked like when we got them in the beginning of the summer...the floppy white-ish combs, the hung heads, overgrown nails, light, didn't know how to stretch or climb. Amazing how quick they have adjusted to the life of a loved farm hen..
Thanks for the education...this was very informative.

Melanie said...

Wow! We have hens for eggs but I didn't know you could keep them on the counter... interesting!

doglady said...

And, Mr. DeCoster paid a fine of $2 mil to the state of Maine for a variety of violations in his houses and on the property in Turner, Maine in the 1990's. The violations ranged from inhumane treatment of chickens, filthy hen houses,as well as some DHS and Immigration issues. None of what has happened is a surprise to me.

Texan said...

You are egg-actly right about commercial egg laying houses, I worked in one when I was a kid! I gathered eggs! You can add maggots to the list of disgusting parasites that are in those egg laying houses!! LOTS and LOTS of them ewwwww... Those poor hens are caged and stacked just as you said. Yep and not some but EVERY single egg that is laid is washed in a oily substance before its put in the cooler. The big companies pick those eggs up every few days. Lots of time for lots of ikky things to get in those washed eggs. I have no idea what happens to the eggs after they leave the laying houses. OH and you can also add dead chickens to the list of what those poor caged hens live with. yep till a egg gatherer or other person working in the house notices one of those poor hens has died. That hen lays in the cage with the others stuffed in there...
Its a SORRY SORRY state I can tell you!

My three girls live in a 10x20 wire pen. Lots of fresh air in a filtered shaded area, a must here in Texas. We can't free range here due to predators, we have tried. So we made them a nice open wire pen where they are safe but have lots of room to move around ...

If lucky nickel would like to give a go at naming a couple more kids, I have two new ones, they need names. Pics on blog :O)

Chai Chai said...

Excellent post, great information about "home grown" eggs and how to store them. Very sad to see how commercial chickens are treated. I am so happy that I now have my own chickens, now if they would only start laying.......

Nancy K. said...

EXCELLENT POST!!!
If I can figure out how to do it, I would like to post a link to this post on my Facebook page. You are so very correct and this IS very important!

Joanna@BooneDocksWilcox said...

me too, my eggs are sitting in a basket on the kitchen counter, I love seeing the artwork from my girls

Judith said...

Excellent post. The more people who know how their eggs are produced, the better. I don't have hens myself any more, but I have neighbours who do, and they keep me well supplied with lovely healthy free range eggs.

Holly said...

Love your post! I didn't know about the protective covering!

Chicken Momma said...

What a great post. I hope you don't mind that I have referred my readers to you today. You took all the things I have been wanting to say and got them organized like I couldn't.

Cindy said...

Great post and so true. One other thing that concerns me is what I feed my chickens. I don't have any right now, but my son wants to do poultry for 4H next year. My concern is feeding soy to our birds. I need to look into buying or making a soyfree poultry food.
Do you know anything about this CLaire?

Could you email me? I have a question about some of your other critters.

Thanks,

Cindy

gracehaven @ mwt.net (remove spaces)

Kelly said...

Paige-keep reading. Raw milk is far healthier than pasteurized! You may have already seen this site, but check out www.realmilk.com for more resources on why milk should be raw.

doglady said...

Raw milk is absolutely better for you. It tastes better, is more satisfying and doesn't need added vitamins. Imagine that.

Jennifer said...

GREAT POST! I feel so horrible for those commercial chickens!