As the largest egg recall in American history continues to unravel (find out if you have a dozen of those bad boys here), there should be plenty of holier-than-thou backyard chicken fetishists who feel quite smug, believing their precious hens are laying disease-free eggs.
Considering I get my eggs through the Eastside Egg Co-op, operating out of Zenger farm, I count myself as one of those smug, holier-than-thou types. How could those lovely hens I put to bed every Sunday possibly be harboring disease? How could those sweet chickens, looking sidelong at me as I serenade them with ukulele covers of Akon, possibly harm me in any way?
Speaking with Dr. Emilio DeBess, State Veterinarian with the Oregon Department of Health, I suddenly realize I've been re-enacting that Russian roulette scene from The Deerhunter every time I make breakfast; except, instead of putting a gun to my head, I'm baking eggs. ("Go ahead Nikki! Go ahead. It's gonna be alright. I'll do THREE eggs! Three!")
"All chickens have salmonella," Dr. DeBess explains. "The question is how you take care of yourself."
Much the same way humans have Staphylococcus aureus as part of our normal skin flora, always present on our bodies, DeBess points out that all chickens have salmonella, as well as campylobacter. "It doesn't affect them because it's a common organism on their skin," says DeBess.
It's well known that a person can get salmonella by handling raw chicken, or from the outside of unwashed eggs (which, if you didn't know, share passage in the poop chute). But even those cute, harmless, baby chicks can also be a vector for spreading salmonella. "Throughout the United States, every time chicks are available, there are always a group of people who get salmonella," says DeBess.
These common routes of salmonella infection via chicken are very preventable through proper chicken/egg handling, and hand washing. But the current recall is concerned with salmonella found not on the outside, but on the inside of the egg. Making proper hand washing, or egg washing, completely ineffective.
Salmonella can get inside an egg through several different pathways. Sometimes it stems from a genetic predilection to harboring salmonella in the ovaries, a hereditary trait usually tested out of the industrial egg system by the USDA. It can also be caused by unclean living conditions. Other times it can occur through chickens eating feed infected by salmonella, often passed to the feed through rodent dung. The current recall, DeBess says, appears linked to the latter.
On the surface it would seem that backyard chicken keepers would be safe, having much more control over their feed and the cleanliness of their coops. But can they be sure their chickens come from a line that is not predisposed to having salmonella in their ovaries? They can if they know the line is USDA tested and certified, or trusts that their heritage breeder knows this information.
But if the danger of salmonella in backyard chickens is clear and present, then why haven't we heard of a scourge of salmonella cases from backyard, or "off the grid" farm-fresh eggs.
"The only way you hear about these recalls, is to hear people are getting sick and track it back to the source," explains DeBess. "You can't triangulate with backyard chickens."
DeBess suggests the only way to be sure you'll not be infected with salmonella from your eggs is to wash your hands, as well as your eggs, and cook them until both the whites and yolks are hard.
As far as favorite raw egg foods like Hollandaise sauce?
"You can use pasteurized liquid eggs if you want Hollandaise sauce," says DeBess. "I guess a lot of it is how much of a risk you want to take. It's such a personal decision. It's difficult to tell people what to do. These are the choices that we make."
Want to defer the risk altogether? Find a vegan and ask them to show you how to cook sauces entirely without eggs. I'm sure they'd be glad to help.
In the end, realizing the small chicken flock providing my eggs does not completely free me from the risk of salmonella, I still feel the amount of knowledge I have about their feed and care outweighs the danger of factory farmed eggs. Though I will admit, a good amount of my "holier-than-thou" smugness has been erased by the good Dr. DeBess.