In recent years, chickens have come home to roost in backyards across the country. While the numbers are hard to document, cities and towns all over the U.S. are taking up the issue and modifying their laws to allow backyard chickens. Nearly every week in the news, a story appears reporting another town or city considering amendments to local laws that would allow backyard chickens. Proponents in North Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, and Nixa, Missouri have been working to amend the law; while just last week, local government in Hampton, Virginia and Howard County, Maryland, approved ordinance amendments to allow backyard chickens.
Seeing this trend as an extension of the local, urban food movement, people are realizing that chickens make great, productive pets. There’s evidence that eggs from backyard chickens have greater nutritional value than commercial eggs, and chickens eat pretty much anything – ticks, grasshoppers, kitchen scraps, weeds, you name it. They even have the added bonuses of being adorable and kids loving them. How could you not love that beak?
However, in 2012 an outbreak of salmonella that was traced back to several backyard flocks made at least one NPR blogger wary of the recent trend – dubbing backyard chickens “spreaders of salmonella.” A CDC report found that most of the people infected in this outbreak handled live chickens and that many of them had purchased chicks from one Ohio mail-order hatchery. A single hatchery, in this case, was responsible for the outbreak that affected 195 people in 27 states.
The story, unfortunately, focused on the chickens themselves when instead it should have focused on the bigger picture: when outbreaks can be pinpointed to a single source, it demonstrates the vulnerabilities of a large, global food economy. When there’s a problem, like an outbreak, it tends to spread faster, and farther in our interdependent, global economy. For example, in 2010, a salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds across the country was traced back to one Iowa egg company and the company had to recall 380 million of its eggs.
And this blogger is not a lone voice in decrying backyard chickens. Alongside the stories of municipalities voting to change laws to allow backyard chickens, you will find stories of municipalities voting to ban backyard chickens, often in the name of public safety. It makes me wonder, how have we come so far as a society to be more skeptical of the food produced right before our eyes than food produced primarily behind closed doors and transported more than a thousand miles before reaching our plates?
Industrial food-animal production is largely responsible for the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance, while the lack of appropriate handling of waste at many of these facilities contaminates nearby air and waters with harmful nutrients and toxins. In addition, the focus on profits means animals are raised in as little space as possible and not surprisingly, these cramped, dirty conditions are fertile breeding grounds for diseases. On the other hand, a decentralized, local, scaled-down food economy offers numerous benefits. Local food significantly reduces these types of risks, makes us more resilient, and the food produced tends to be healthier too.
So do backyard chickens pose a public health risk? The facts just don’t bear this out. Consider this: salmonella causes about 1.2 million cases of food poisoning each year in the U.S. The outbreak that was traced back to the mail-order hatchery constitutes 0.01% of the total number of cases.
In addition, research suggests backyard chickens present no more of a health risk than other animals that may be kept as pets. If chickens are well-cared for and are kept in a clean environment, as with all pets, they are more likely to stay healthy. Very few poultry diseases are transmissible to man and salmonella is not an airborne disease (read: salmonella will not simply float from the chickens in your neighbor’s yard into your home). If you do decide to handle a chicken, simply wash your hands afterwards.
For the better part of mankind’s history, food was produced and consumed locally. Prior to World War II, nearly one-third of Americans lived on farms and even if you didn’t live on a farm, you probably bought your meat, milk, and eggs directly from your local farmer. During this time salmonella and avian flu certainly did not run rampant. These diseases that now make the news cycle on a near daily basis – and emerging concerns about antibiotic resistance and indiscriminate pesticide use – are products of our large, industrialized food system. Backyard chickens are a part of a solution that will strengthen our local food economy and at the same time, create foods that are both better for us and the environment.