How safe are free-range eggs?

Years ago – before we moved here and put a dog inside – the shed out back was a chicken coop. These were the original backyard chickens. A resurgence of small-flock rearing has led many to wonder (and make assumptions) about the safety of free-range eggs.

Joel Keehn wrote on Consumer Reports’ Health blog this weekend that,

"About a year ago I took my 11-year-old daughter to the emergency room with what turned out to be salmonella poisoning. My first thought when I heard the diagnosis: Did she pick up the infection from our flock of chickens? But the public-health outreach worker at the local department of health said that was unlikely.

"While eggs are indeed a leading cause of salmonella poisoning, the bacteria that causes the infection may be more likely to breed in the cramped confines of factory farms than in free-range, backyard chicken runs like ours."

Oh? That’s an interesting assumption. And Keehn doesn’t provide anything to support it.

As far as I can tell, salmonella contamination of eggs from various farming methods has not been well-researched…save for one study rumored in January 2008 to have been conducted by the UK government that "showed that 23.4 per cent of farms with caged [egg-laying] hens tested positive for salmonella compared to 4.4 per cent in organic flocks and 6.5 per cent in free-range flocks."

The closest thing I could find was a report by the UK Food Standards Agency in March 2004 of testing results of 4,753 containers of six eggs each (with 16.9% from free-range production systems) that found "no statistically significant difference…between the prevalence of salmonella contamination in samples from different egg production types."

Keehn’s blog post concluded by saying,

"By the way, the health department official who called me up said the most likely source of my daughter’s salmonella poisoning was our pet turtle. That critter is now gone. But I’m picking up four new hens from my neighbor down the road later this week."

I have no reason to believe their eggs will be any safer than those of caged hens. Keehn’s reason is not good enough.

Dr. Dean Cliver: Eggs deluxe

Dr. Dean Cliver writes in this satirical contribution that:

My supermarket charges a 34% premium for "cage-free" eggs, compared to conventional eggs of the same brand, size, and grade.  Cage-free eggs, with additional features, get as much as a 124% surcharge.  Some say that eggs from cage-free chickens have more flavor because the chickens eat bugs; it would probably be cheaper to raise insects and feed them to layers in conventional cages, although the chicken would be denied the thrill of the chase. 

I suspect that most people who pay extra for cage-free eggs would not be able to detect the difference in taste, which suggests that flavor is not what they are really paying for.  More likely, the premium is paid out of respect for the hens’ freer lifestyle.  If respect for chickens adds value to their eggs, there are certainly further commercial possibilities based on enhancing the life of the chicken.

I suggest that, if laying hens are to be treated with the dignity they deserve, premium egg ranches give every chicken her own name.  As each egg was produced, its shell would be imprinted with the donor’s name.  In the interest of marketing eggs as fresh as possible, no two eggs in a one-dozen carton would bear the same name; the names might also be embellished with colors and distinctive logos. 

Hens typically proclaim their egg production with the characteristic, triumphant cackle — it should be possible to build this into each egg carton (as is now done in greeting cards and other devices), so that the purchaser would hear it each time the carton was opened.  Value might be further enhanced by adding some scratch-and-sniff barnyard aroma (bacteria-free, of course), to give the consumer an even greater feeling of being close to Nature.

How much value would be added by these measures could be determined by market research.  If the prognosis was sufficiently favorable, there should be little difficulty capitalizing the required egg ranch and processing facility.  Hens that "graduated" from such a ranch might also have added gastronomic value, or they might simply be enrolled in an alumnae association for life.

Dr. Cliver officially retired October 1, 2007 and is winding down from 46 years in academia, battling infectious agents in food and water.  His research career has led him to see the world as if peering outward through the anal orifice: this "reverse proctoscopy" confers a unique viewpoint.