In the face of the recent massive recall of salmonella-tainted eggs, backyard chicken keepers are asking whether it’s safe to eat eggs from their own hens. Let’s look at the facts.
Evidence suggests that 75 percent of all chickens are infected with one or more kinds of salmonella bacteria at some time in their lives. But no one says how the survey was conducted or what chickens were included. It’s a pretty good bet that backyard layers were not in the study group.
Salmonella can create a serious problem for egg producers because chickens that seem perfectly healthy are often carriers. An outbreak can be triggered at any time by stress due to crowding, molting, feed deprivation, drug treatment, or simply being transported.
The disease spreads to healthy chickens that come into contact with infected chickens or other infected animals (including humans). It spreads by means of contaminated droppings in litter, drinking water, and damp soil around waterers. It is spread mechanically by flies, rodents, wild birds, used equipment, shoes, truck tires, and the like. Salmonella may also be present in rations containing contaminated meat by-products.
Back in the old days, the bacteria typically got into an egg through a shell that was contaminated by chicken droppings. Bacteria on an eggshell penetrate the shell and multiply within the egg.
With the advent of industrialized egg production, eggs are more typically contaminated by bacteria in a hen’s ovaries. Why or how that came about, no one is really certain, but these days contamination within an industrially produced egg most likely occurred as the egg was being formed in the body of an infected hen.
Can backyard hens carry salmonella? Certainly.
Are eggs from backyard hens likely to make you sick? Probably not.
For one thing, industrialized hens are overcrowded and overstressed, leading to reduced resistance to disease. Presumably your backyard hens have room to roam, are maintained in a cleaner environment, are handled gently, and in general live relatively stress-free lives.
Another big factor in the recent recall is that the eggs involved were packaged and repackaged by different distributors under different brand names. Centralized food production has many problems, including more handling of food, longer travel times, and the possibility of inconsistent refrigeration. All of this gives any salmonella that might be present in an egg plenty of time to proliferate.
Eggs from your backyard typically go directly from a clean nest into either the frying pan or the fridge. When you produce your own food, you have a pretty good incentive to make sure it’s handled safely.
And finally, all of the hens involved in the egg recall came from the same source. And all of the rations they were fed came from the same source. Whether the hens were contaminated, or the feed was contaminated, or both, has yet to be determined. But it’s safe to say that neither hens nor rations from that source will find their way to any backyard flocks.
Industrial producers have, on the one hand, long maintained that eggs infected with salmonella are rare. On the other hand, they hedge their bets by advising that to be on the safe side all eggs and egg dishes should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit. If you remain concerned, despite the minimal risk that your homegrown eggs are contaminated with salmonella, heating your eggs to 160 degrees Fahrenheit will eliminate all possibility of danger.
Gail Damerow is the author of Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, The Chicken Health Handbook, Draft Horses and Mules, Fences for Pasture and Garden, The Perfect Pumpkin, Your Goats, and Your Chickens for Storey Publishing. She is a regular contributor to Backyard Poultry magazine and former editor of Rural Heritage magazine. Her work has appeared in more than 40 other publications, including Acres USA, Back Home, Dairy Goat Journal, Mother Earth News, and Small Farm Today. She and her husband operate a family farm in Tennessee where they raise chickens, guinea fowl, turkeys, rabbits, and dairy goats.