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Backyard Hens: A Trend Coming Home to Roost?

The infamous egg recall of 2010–which identified over 500,000 eggs infected with salmonella–inspired not only widespread condemnation of industrial egg production, but a reactionary upsurge in the trend of keeping backyard hens. For reasons that seem intuitively straightforward (but lack concrete substantiation), a critical mass of do-it-yourselfers determined that it was, among other benefits, safer and more humane to raise their “own” birds and eat their “own” eggs. As this movement continues to take shape, it’s worth asking if these evaluations are all they’re cracked up to be.
As for safety, we’ve really no way of knowing at this point. To the best of my knowledge (and please, if I am wrong, show me), nobody has calculated comparative rates of infection between backyard and industrialized birds. What we do know is that backyard chickens aren’t immune to disease outbreaks. Just last month Food Safety News reported that the CDC had identified 71 cases of salmonella (more than half under the age of 5) linked to backyard chickens. Eighteen people were hospitalized.
Trackback investigations found that the infected chickens were sourced from an Ohio-based hatchery called Mt. Healthy Hatchery. This connection reiterates the crucial point that, unless chicken owners breed their own birds (burdening them with unwanted roosters) or screen for disease upon the chickens’ arrival (very expensive), they’re forced to depend on the vagaries of a distant supply chain–something they hoped to avoid in the first place because, of course, it exposes their birds to contamination.
By the same token, it’s certainly possible, with effective management, to have a perfectly safe large-scale egg operation. As I wrote here last year, an Illinois egg producer generating 800,000+ eggs a day never had an issue with salmonella. The owner understood the importance of precautionary testing and was meticulous about sanitation. He was industrial and clean–a seeming oxymoron in today’s discussions of agribusiness. This observation should in no way condone the welfare nightmare of factory farming, but it does remind us that, for all the horrors therein, it can be an efficient place to produce eggs safe for human consumption.
These anecdotes remind us that, when it comes to the safety of chicken eggs, what matters is not so much the setting in which the birds are raised (factory or backyard), but rather quality control and managerial acumen. To thus boldly assert that the eggs of backyard hens are safer–something I hear all the time– is to place faith ahead of evidence. Again, we might very well, based on personal experience, have the grounds to claim that the backyard hen is a safe hen. But, by this measure, anyone who regularly eats factory eggs and avoids sickness can say the same thing about factory eggs. Bottom line is that we just don’t know.
The welfare issue is less ambiguous. Chickens who live in a backyard coop, as opposed to a factory farm, are undoubtedly happier. This is common sense. As the Humane Society of the United States puts it, “Every family that gets their eggs from backyard hens is likely reducing or eliminating their purchase of eggs laid by hens who suffered on factory farms.” Hard to argue with this assessment.
But the relative comparison between these systems–factory and backyard– shouldn’t obscure the rarely acknowledged welfare problems that can plague backyard chicken arrangements. For one, backyard chickens are like fish in a barrel for predators. As a quick perusal of any on-line forum for chicken keepers will attest, chickens frequently fall prey to dogs, hawks, skunks, coyotes, and, naturally, foxes.
But the worst predator to menace the backyard chicken is surely the raccoon, as evidenced by this poll on Raccoons have adapted seamlessly to urban and suburban environments as a primary result of easy access to human trash. The popular decision to force chickens into these locations, and to inhibit their natural survival tactics by securing them in a coop, is in the same vein as a hunter loading a feeder with corn and sitting above it in a deer blind, or keeping outdoor cats and throwing birdseed near the kitty food. It’s not fair.
Structured predation, however, is only part of the problem.  There’s also the issue of hatcheries and roosters. Most keepers of backyard chickens mail-order their chicks from a hatchery. Whether they’re supplying chicks for factory egg farms, free-range egg farms, or backyard egg farms, hatcheries, which are much like puppy mills, generally don’t give a cluck about male birds.
The result of this indifference is sad. As Jasmin Singer, co-founder of Our Hen House, and others have reported, male chicks are routinely killed–sometimes in a grinder– as a matter of course (needless to say, farm animals intended for food and fiber are not protected under the Animal Welfare Act. Other males are shipped to the consumer, either as “packing material” to keep the hens from knocking around in the shipping container, or as a result of “sexing errors,” i.e., mistaking males for females. In either case, because male chicks are considered useless by egg producers, they’re more often than not terminated upon arrival (again, this is perfectly legal). Backyard chicken owners, no matter how lovingly they treat their birds, remain complicit in this cruel, albeit hidden, reality.
Finally, there’s the simple biological fact that, for most breeds, egg production begins to decline after about a year–but a chicken can live for over ten years. What to do with a hen whose output is on the wane? Regrettably, this is a question rarely asked by those eager to channel their inner husbandman. The options, even more regrettably, aren’t encouraging.
You can kill it for chicken soup, of course. But isn’t there something paradoxical about opposing factory farming by raising a chicken for a couple of years and then wringing its neck when productivity heads south? Another, and much more humane option, is to send it to a farm sanctuary. However, as the backyard hen trend takes off, sanctuaries are finding themselves bursting at the seams, not unlike dog shelters. Keep it as a companion animal? This  option is hardly sustainable, at least if you hope to keep having fresh eggs. I can’t imagine that many urban and suburban backyard chicken keepers have the space to both raise fecund chicks while nurturing their slowly retiring relatives. Plus, to make a backyard chicken a companion animal strikes me a risky endeavor given that a) chickens haven’t been bred to be companion animals, and b) the chances of them dying a violent death at the hands of a predator is relatively high–something nobody truly close to a non-human animal wants to experience.
The foodie media generally tends to glorify the practice of backyard chicken-keeping without paying particular attention to the downsides of this growing trend. At the very least, future chicken keepers should be cognizant of the less publicized challenges they face. As I see it, the drawbacks of eating backyard eggs far outweigh the benefits. And, be assured, this is not support for factory-farmed eggs, but rather yet another reminder that, when it comes to the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products, sometimes the easiest answer is to just say no.