by Laura Sayre — Title photograph by Matthew Stallbaumer
• 1/4 less saturated fat
• 2/3 more vitamin A
• 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
• 3 times more vitamin E
• 7 times more beta-carotene
Mad City Chickens is one example. In April 2002, Alicia Rheal and Bryan Whiting of Madison, Wis., had been raising six hens in a small coop behind their home for almost a year. One day, an animal control worker paid them a visit.
“Apparently, someone was concerned we were going to eat them,” Rheal says. The animal control worker referred them to a zoning officer as he wasn’t actually sure of the city’s rules on keeping chickens. The zoning officer indicated that city ordinances permitted an unlimited number of chickens to be kept inside a house, but keeping outdoor poultry was prohibited. “He was really nice about it, though,” Rheal says. “He suggested we try to get that changed.”
The couple gave away their hens, made contact with a city council member, and began speaking to neighbors. They submitted an article for their local newspaper, asking for support. Soon after, they uncovered a booming “urban chicken underground,” dozens of city dwellers who were quietly raising chickens, and who were happy to come out.
“There was one fellow three blocks away who’d had chickens for 20 years,” Rheal says. “We ended up meeting all these terrific people.”
In 2004, Madison changed the poultry ordinance. Today, Mad City Chickens has an annual summer Coop Tour and a fall “Pro-Poultry People Potluck,” each event drawing up to 80 people. Rheal and others offer a two-hour City Chickens 101 class to teach would-be chicken owners the basics of coop design and other helpful tips. An online discussion group encourages members to combine purchases of chicks and to share ideas.
Madison is not the only city in the U.S interested in chickens. The organic gardeners’ group Seattle Tilth has been offering chicken classes and coop workshops for nearly 20 years; similar movements are happening in Minneapolis and Portland, Ore. As egg prices rise along with concerns surrounding food quality and safety, “pro-poultry people” from San Francisco to Brooklyn are exercising their right to raise chickens within city limits.
Understanding terms like certified organic, omega 3 and cage free All those new varieties of eggs in the local supermarket have all the information you need listed right on the label, right? Well, that depends. Here’s an abbreviated guide to some of the more common label claims straight from the supermarket egg case:
“Cage Free,” “Free Range” or “Free Roaming.” According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the terms “Free Range” and “Free Roaming” simply mean those hens have “been allowed access to the outside.” “Free Range” usually means the hens are raised in big flocks in large open warehouses as opposed to stacked cages. They can roam around, flap their wings and preen their feathers. Because outdoor access is not clearly defined, it is probably extremely limited, and their time outdoors, if any, is likely on dirt or concrete rather than on grass or pasture. “Cage Free” does not mean outdoor access.
“Certified Humane.” A certification program operated by Humane Farm Animal Care specifies that laying hens are uncaged and have access to perches, nest boxes and dust-bathing areas. Outdoor access is not required and there are stocking-density maximums. Beak trimming (but not debeaking) is also allowed; starvation to induce molting is strictly prohibited.
“Certified Organic.” Production processes must obey the USDA National Organic Program, which includes organic, vegetarian feed, no antibiotics and no cages. Debeaking and forced molting by starvation are allowed. Organic standards require producers to “maintain livestock living conditions which accommodate the health and natural behavior of the animals.” It is still being debated how much access to the outdoors is required. On some large organic chicken farms, it may only mean that a small door opening onto a concrete yard exists.
“Omega 3.” All eggs contain small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids beneficial to human health. Omega-3 levels in eggs can be raised in many ways, such as supplementing the birds’ diet with fish oil, alfalfa meal or flax seed, or by allowing the birds to naturally forage on lawn or pasture.