Backyard Chickens: Cute, Innocent, Delicious…and Deadly?

Raising backyard chickens is a great way to get local, organic food—until they make you sick, that is.

September 6, 2011

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Backyard chicken rearing has become so popular that hens and roosters now reside atop ritzy Manhattan apartment complexes, hunt and peck in community gardens in Madison, Wisconsin, and live as pets in suburban backyards. The lure of fresh-from-the-henhouse eggs has made them the poster poultry for the "Buy Local" and small-scale agriculture movements.

But now these birds are beginning to show their dark meat. After an investigation that began in February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that backyard chickens living in 20 states have infected 92 people, mostly children, with various strains of salmonella. As a result, the agency is urging people to rethink their enthusiasm over backyard chickens.


THE DETAILS: In late August, CDC announced it had traced two outbreaks of salmonella to live chicks and ducks sold by Mt. Healthy Hatchery, based in Ohio. The two salmonella strains detected in these animals, Salmonella Altona and Salmonella Johannesburg, are both rare. And while no one has died as a result of infection, 25 out of the 92 people who were infected wound up in the hospital. On the upside, the strains don't exhibit the same kind of antibiotic resistance found in the recent turkey recall involving factory-farmed turkeys infected with the potent Salmonella Heidelberg strain.

Mt. Healthy Hatchery issued a statement on its website related to the outbreak, saying that owners there were able to trace the salmonella-contaminated chicks to a single supplier, with whom the company has ceased doing business.

WHAT IT MEANS: "This was just an unfortunate fluke," says Patricia Foreman, author of the book City Chicks and host of the daily talk-radio program, Backyard Poultry with the Chicken Whisperer. She says that Mt. Healthy Hatchery, which has been in business since 1924, has a very good track record and is a valued supplier to backyard chicken owners such as herself because the hatchery raises rare heritage breeds that other hatcheries shy away from. And she says she's impressed with the fact that the company doesn't use antibiotics on its birds and conducts extensive salmonella testing on both its breeder flocks and the babies.

In general, Foreman says, hatcheries do take these precautions to keep sick birds out of backyard flock owners' hands. "A good hatchery practices good hygiene, ensures proper air flow to keep bacteria at bay and efficient handling of any waste," she says. Hatcheries also are required to regularly test birds for salmonella, and any that test positive are destroyed.

But as this case shows, some backyard chicks can fly the coop with a belly full of bacteria without the hatchery knowing. Salmonella, which lives in the intestines of birds, doesn't affect the health of the poultry, just that of the humans who own them. Children and adults with compromised immune systems are most susceptible to the bacteria, as evidenced by the fact that most of the infected people in these outbreaks were under the age of 5. In one case, the child who was sickened was 3 months old and likely came into contact with a baby chick that was given to the family as an Easter pet. The CDC also reported that some people became ill after handling the birds at animal feed stores then not washing their hands before eating. "We need to treat chicks and poultry like livestock rather than pets," Foreman says. "Don't let kids cuddle them, and don't keep them inside. And make sure kids wash their hands afterwards."

If you're considering a backyard flock, here are a few things to keep in mind:

• Know your hatchery. Look for a local hatchery that you can visit to see the conditions in which the baby chicks are born and raised. Check out Mother Earth News' Directory of Hatcheries to find one near you. The good news is that hatcheries that supply backyard flock owners usually don't supply factory farms, Foreman says, but it's always a good idea to ask about that sort of thing. Some factory-farm suppliers de-beak their birds before shipment, but backyard birds need a full beak to forage for bugs and seeds. Also ask about antibiotic use, she says (ideally, there will be none), but just be aware that some backyard chicken hatcheries do vaccinate the birds against nerve and respiratory diseases.

• Free bird(s)! You can bypass the hatchery by asking friends or other flock owners for baby chicks when their flocks get too large to handle. (You might even be helping them out.) "My flocks have almost become self-sufficient," Foreman says. You may have less variety to choose from with regard to breeds, but if your primary concern is fresh eggs, any breed can serve that purpose. Search for backyard flock owners near you at

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