Dirt, Germs, and Barnyard Eggs

The cultures are back -- no Salmonella.
After reading about the massive recall of half a billion eggs last August, I decided to do a little testing on my own backyard flock.  Because I like to cook my eggs sunny side up and use them raw in Cherry Garcia ice cream, I wondered a little whether I was risking a case of vomiting, bloody diarrhea, and fever.  After all, the instructions on store eggs make you feel like it's a big deal if you forget to wash your hands after touching an egg.
Although the older kids declared themselves unavailable for this experiment, Cady and Porter volunteered as assistants.  One night after dark we lifted each chicken off its roost and obtained the requisite swab from where the sun doesn't shine.  We then inoculated 21 culture dishes with these dirty Q tips and brought them to the lab where they were incubated.  The agar plates grew a little of this and a little of that, but no disease-causing organisms like Salmonella.
Now our chickens aren't especially clean.  They scratch around in horse manure looking for tasty flies and larvae.  Their kitchen bucket, not being refrigerated, smells pretty ripe by the time it reaches them.  They share their food with wild birds like magpies and blackbirds, as well as the occasional mouse.  What's more, they don't distinguish dining room from outhouse.  To an outsider, they probably don't appear any cleaner than factory chickens.  But they do spend half the day outside and each bird has more than one square foot to move about.
None of them have ever taken antibiotics.  They eat mostly wheat, barley, and oats I buy from the grain elevator, with table scraps for desert.  Outside, they eat small moving things and maybe a little grass.  They also clean up sunflower seeds dropped by the chickadees.
But they don't carry pathogenic organisms.  We don't need to pasteurize their eggs, or wash them in bleach like packaged salads.
The difference between our small flock and the power layers toiling in big egg factories is the conditions.  Sunlight, fresh air, dirt, and space are somehow antiseptic.  As John Ingraham, emeritus professor of microbiology at UC-Davis said, "healthy chickens living in decent surroundings are just going to be a lot more resistant to Salmonella.  Take any creature, ourselves included, you put them in terrible stressful conditions, and they become susceptible to disease."
Unfortunately, the focus of the FDA seems to be on sterilization of food rather than trying to understand and imitate natural systems that are in essence self-cleaning.  As long as we continue crowding farm animals into unnatural living conditions, feeding them antibiotics daily, and irradiating or chlorinating food, we will predictably see recalls of eggs, peanut butter, spinach, and other foods due to E Coli and Salmonella.  And even with the recalls, Americans will still get Salmonella poisoning about a million times a year.

Fall 2010