Monday, April 26, 2010

City fresh eggs

Close to 15 years ago, I read Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. While I didn't agree completely with the logic of his argument, my eyes were opened to the disgusting ways in which we raise the animals who become our food. I quickly decided that I would become a free-rangatarian, and I was likely one of the first of my kind. Of all the cruel excuses for animal husbandry, I believed that of egg laying chickens was one of the worst. So unlike most vegetarians who occasionally ignore the egg in their meal, I was pretty hard core about not eating factory farmed eggs. Hence the nickname "free range".

Free range to your health
Fast forward a few years and people started to understand what I was talking about when I said "free range". In fact, many people agree that it is probably a good idea, if only for the health benefits. And it's true. Hens that are allowed to forage outside of cages tend to produce eggs lower in fat and cholesterol and higher in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins (see the table below from Organic & Thrifty). Some people even argue they taste better, but I can't really vouch for that. I do know that it is easier to eat without a side of guilt.

Factory farming ("free range" is not the perfect solution)
Now fast forward even further, to today. Thanks to more books about animal treatment and documentaries, like Food Inc., people are starting to really see and really get how absolutely abhorrent the factory farm paradigm is for the animals and the people involved.

So what's the solution? I always buy free range eggs at the store, however I have my doubts as to the authenticity of their claims. For example, claims that their chickens are free range and fed a vegetarian diet are dubious. Part of what chickens pick up when foraging outside a cage is a variety of bugs (in Hawaii, many people had kept chickens in order to keep the cockroach population down). Bugs, I learned in grade school, are not vegetables. I have a sense that producers started labeling their products as "fed a vegetarian diet" after the whole mad cow scare. To be fair, chickens would likely eat a cow if you fed it to them, so an optimistic view of this package labeling is that they're just trying to assure us that we're not going to have mad eggs.

If they're not being straight forward about their health claims, what about the actual heart of the matter "free". Are these animals actually free or just marginally free? Do a quick internet search and you'll find a lot of pictorial evidence to the contrary.

Know your farmer
Every time I have a chance to buy farm fresh eggs at the farmer's market, I jump on it. They're usually half the price, much higher nutritional value, and they're supporting the local economy. Sometimes they'll even take back the egg cartons, which also allows you to reuse, keeping packaging out of the waste system and helping the farmer save a little money.

Be your farmer
But you can get fresher than that. You can raise your own hens in your own backyard. You think I'm crazy? It's a national trend. In fact on a jog through my Cambridge neighborhood, I ran across a whole family of poultry hanging out.

Certainly a lot of people started raising their own chickens and growing their own food because of the recent recession. Unfortunately, many found that the cost of raising chickens is not offset by the tons of eggs you receive. However, chickens will eat just about anything, so you can make due feeding them your scraps and supplementing with chicken feed and foraging in the yard.

I haven't raised my own chickens so I'm not an expert, but from everything I've read there are certainly some things you should consider.

  1. They need a coop. Even city porches or yards have predators, if only the cat next door. You need to keep your birds safe.
  2. High production hens can lay as many as an egg a day. And they don't need a rooster.
  3. Roosters are a liability for raising chickens. They're noisy and not actually necessary. They'll make your neighbors complain.
  4. Many cities allow for chickens as pets, which means if you don't eat the chicken, you can keep it. 

For way more information than I have on chickens, check out the city chicken:

1 comment:

  1. I've read some complain that having backyard chickens might raise sanitation concerns and increase the chance of epidemics like avian flu. I think this would only be the case if everyone planned to keep huge flocks in their city backyards. I can't imagine that birds are more a risk than dogs and cats pooping all over our neighborhoods. The real problem with fowl as livestock is when they're kept in large numbers in crowded conditions. If you're only keeping a few, then this shouldn't be a problem. In fact, you might help stop such epidemics.