Which Came First: The Chicken or the Easter Egg? Consumer Awareness or Social Justice?

The season of Easter baskets and pastel blue and pink and green eggs is upon us, although many of us still have these in the behind-the-scenes preparation stage.  We have turned our face toward Jerusalem and the way is not so rosy. Not yet. Not until after Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

But who knew that Easter eggs could be a social justice issue? Who thinks of such things while buying cartons of eggs in the grocery store, before boiling, coloring, hiding, rolling, and eating them Easter Sunday? Now that I am starting my second flock of chicks this spring, I have more of a perspective on the issue.

Which comes first in the Easter egg social justice issue, the chicken or the egg? Why not start with understanding egg labels first before we get to the darling feathered creatures themselves? As you stand before the grocery cases, you are faced with a bewildering array of labels that can not be taken at face value. The consumer, quite frankly, is subjected to a great deal of double-speak.

“Cage-free” or “free range” egg labels may mean that the birds are not trapped in cages 24 hours a day, but they may be trapped indoors in a crowded building. The risk of breeding disease increases with over-crowding. In addition, producers who raise these so called “cage-free” hens, often de-beak them to reduce the fighting that results from overcrowding. De-beaking is inhumane  — and, I have found, unnecessary if birds are not stressed.

 “Natural” egg labels can mean anything. There are no regulations or federal standards regarding “natural” label claims.

“Organic” egg labels are governed by some regulations but those rules don’t do much to prevent diseases such as samonella and E.Coli. The labels mean that hens have to be feed an organic diet, but nothing is required concerning how they are kept. They can be cramped in cages where disease can still spread due to confinement.

Not surprisingly, the most disease-free eggs come from chickens that move about freely in the open sunshine just as the Author of Creation intended.  When hens, in addition to their feed, eat fresh grasses, bugs, and worms — in pure Vitamin D sunshine —  it dramatically increases their egg’s nutritional value and decreases their risk of disease. When you are shopping for eggs, be sure to look for labels that say “pasture-raised” if you want to dramatically reduce the risk of salmonella and E. Coli in your Easter eggs. Something to consider before you let your children dye and decorate them.

Getting pasture raised hens will usually mean for most people, buying eggs at a farmer’s market, through a CSA — or really making your children happy and buying a few chicks this spring to raise as pets in your backyard! That way you will know your girls are treated humanely. And there is nothing like letting a young child reach into a nesting box to get a warm brown egg. Or a blue egg or a green egg if you buy the kind of chicks I just purchased – Easter Eggers!

Backyard eggs from hens that free range on your lawn are the easiest way to produce protein at home. These eggs are perfect for people with heart and cholesterol issues because they have 4 times as much Vitamin D, 7 times more beta carotene, one-third less cholesterol, one-quarter less saturated fat, two-thirds more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, and 3 times more vitamin E than the usual grocery store egg.. Where can you get beef or chicken or fish with those stats or 80 calories a serving wrapped in a perfect, peel-able, compostable fast-food container like the eggshell?

This gets us to the human side of the social justice issue. In this era of escalating food and gas prices – and most of our food travels 1,500 miles so expect this trend to continue as the Middle East burns – many people are struggling to put food on the table, much less buying dozens of eggs for Easter egg hunts. Fortunately, there is a backyard chicken movement sweeping the country and more and more families are seeing the wisdom of not only buying a couple of real chicks to delight on Easter morning but keeping these creatures rather than disposing of them. 

The first thing to do is to check the zoning laws of your town or county. If you are lucky and live in Georgia, you may now avail yourself of the “Right to Grow” law that did away with a patch work of municipal zoning codes and subdivision covenants to give Georgians the right once again to grow food in their own back yards for personal consumption. I recommend you start with backyardchickens.com and then double check with your town or city. This website and others can give you the specifics of keeping chickens.

You might be surprised to learn that people trying to keep backyard chickens can come face-to-face with laws that can land them in criminal court — not zoning court — if caught with chickens. Many folks are working together to change these laws because growing food for personal consumption is a social justice issue. I believe it is part of the natural law, those laws written on the fleshy tablets of any human heart steeped in any culture or time in history. People have the right to grow their food as they can.  SO GET INVOLVED AND CHANGE THE LAWS IF THEY ARE NOT FAVORABLE IN YOUR HOMETOWN. Even if this is not an immediate need for your family you will be helping the poor in your community become more self-sufficient.

Another chicken-related social justice issue has to do with the poor immigrants who provide most of the labor in industrial chicken houses. They work in horrendous heat, shin-deep in manure, amongst thousands of stressed birds that are so often over-crowded they can not even stand up and turn around. Think what this means for these people working from daylight to dark in these conditions, many times living in substandard housing, often for exploitive wages, and at the mercy of mob-like bosses who threaten to expose illegal workers who object to their abusive practices.

When you add up the abuse of the animals, the unjust treatment of the humans, the nutritional deficiencies and disease risks – what is the real cost of that basket of dyed Easter eggs?

After keeping chickens for a year now, I can tell you they are no more trouble than our cat or our dog. They are the funniest of God’s creations and you cannot fail to be happy when you interact with them. So get a few hens and strike a blow for good health, more sustainable communities, and humane treatment of God’s creatures.  Your basket of Easter eggs will never look prettier.

Virginia Fisher Murdoch is a published historian with two years experience writing for EWTN. Blogging about food for five years as the Kitchen Madonna, lead to grinding grain for bread, a master gardener certification, chickens, and an urban farming passion. Her engineer husband builds the greenhouses, the chicken coups, and supports her cheese-making habit.