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First The Chicken, Then The Egg

By Jeanne Ohm, DC

I love eggs. Always have, and I expect I always will. Eggs are an easy, quick and inexpensive source of protein, and with my busy professional and personal life, I need protein to stay grounded. I remember when there was hype about eggs having too much cholesterol. People were cutting out eggs and resorting to some form of liquid egg in a carton. I didn’t buy into it, and continued eating my daily dosage of two eggs— over easy, please.

More than 30 years ago, when my husband and I were in college, living the student poverty lifestyle—these were the days before college loans—we got chickens. They were delightful. Entertaining. Easy.

We let our chickens run free. It fit with our personal philosophy of life. Little did we know the nutritious benefit our philosophically motivated farming provided. We didn’t know the term “free-range,” nor had the adjective “pastured” even been coined. We just figured the chickens would be happier running around the yard rather than…well, cooped up. And they did seem to be happy. The way they ran on their two skinny legs was amusing. Their language was entertaining. They made me laugh. And they provided us with the best eggs we’d ever tasted. Now, 30 years later, we have chickens again.

Why on earth do you have chickens?

When people ask me this question, I know they have never tasted the difference between pastured, grass-range chicken eggs and the myriad of eggs with misleading labels sold today. Maybe I’m just “strutting my stuff,” but the difference a chicken’s diet and lifestyle make in an egg’s nutritional outcome, and downright eating pleasure, is huge.

Almost all conventional chickens are raised in caged confinement: close, uncomfortable, dark quarters with limited or no access to sunlight, fresh air and fields. These living conditions breed diseases and are the main source of salmonella. The American Egg Board’s egg-safety reference calculates the odds of an egg containing bacterium Salmonella enteritidis (Se) as 1 in 20,000 eggs, or 0.005 percent. At that rate, you might encounter a contaminated egg once every 84 years. But even though the bacteria is rare, the chickens are given antibiotics and their eggs go through a cleaning process with toxic chemicals. To maximize production, artificial light is imposed on the chickens, even out of season. And, of course, the chickens are fed genetically modified grains, soy, cottonseed and fillers with artificial vitamins. They never have access to green grass, tasty grubs and natural seeds, their healthiest and most natural diet.

I believe in informed choice. Here is the lowdown on the various terms being used to describe chicken raising: organic, vegetarian-fed, cage-free, free-range and pastured. It is important to define these terms, as their very names mislead and confuse.

Organic: “Not everything it’s cracked up to be.” This label merely states that the chicken’s food sources are free of harmful chemicals. It does not clarify how the chickens were raised, or if they had access to a pasture or not. Trendy, but not relevant.

Vegetarian-Fed: “Dumb cluck.” Since most people think grains should comprise the majority of the chicken’s diet, a vegetarian-fed chicken seems appealing. The truth of the matter is that chickens need protein from grubs and bugs, as well as fresh greens and seeds. “Vegetarian-fed” is another designer term, and guarantees that the chickens do not have access to the pasture, where it would be virtually impossible to keep them from eating grubs.

Cage-Free: “Ruffle your feathers.” I was a bit annoyed when I found out the real meaning of this marketing label. It insinuates that the chickens are free to roam, and are not confined to the dismal living conditions of a cage. In reality, the chickens may not be caged, but are usually confined to dark barns they can never leave. At best, they have access to fenced bare dirt or cement yards stripped of all plants and potential nourishment. That yard access, however, is usually designated by the term “free-range.”