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A chicken in every backyard: Urban poultry needs more regulation to protect human and animal health

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BY CATHERINE BRINKLEY
University of California, Davis

Colorado has received a lot of attention recently as one of the first states to allow recreational marijuana, but it’s also legalizing other things. Denver, one of the nation’s hottest urban real estate markets, is surrounded by municipalities that allow backyard chicken flocks.

This isn’t just happening in Colorado. Backyard chickens are cropping up everywhere. Nearly 1 percent of all U.S. households surveyed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported owning backyard fowl in 2013, and 4 percent more planned to start in the next five years. That’s over 13 million Americans flocking to the backyard poultry scene.

Ownership is spread evenly between rural, urban and suburban households and is similar across racial and ethnic groups. A 2015 review of 150 of the most-populated  U.S. cities found that nearly all (93 percent) allowed backyard poultry flocks.

Our lab group analyzes health issues that connect humans, animals and the environment. In a recent study with University of California, Davis animal scientist Joy Mench, we examined urban poultry regulations in Colorado – the only state that collects and makes public animal shelter surrender data. Our findings suggest that as backyard chicken farming spreads, states need to develop regulations to better protect animal welfare and human health.

U.S. cities once were powered by animals. Horses provided transport through the early 1900s. Pigs and hens fed on household garbage before municipal trash collection became routine. Thousands of cattle were driven up Fifth Avenue in New York City daily in the late 19th century, occasionally trampling children and pedestrians.

To reduce accidents, disease and nuisances, such as piles of smelly manure and dead animals, early public health and planning agencies wrote the first ordinances banning urban livestock. By the 1920s, farm animals and related facilities such as dairies, piggeries and slaughterhouses were barred from most U.S. cities. Exceptions were made during World War I and World War II, when meat was rationed, encouraging city dwellers to raise backyard birds.  

Locavores and animal loversThe local food movement has helped drive interest in raising backyard birds. People want to grow their own food. In response, cities across the country are modifying regulations and overturning long-standing bans to legally accommodate backyard chickens.

Surveys show that backyard chicken owners are concerned about where their food comes from, how it was produced and possible risks associated with eating industrially produced meat and eggs. They believe their birds have a better quality of life and produce safer and more nutritious eggs and meat than commercially raised versions.

However, raising backyard chickens is not risk-free. As one example,  an outbreak of highly infectious H5N1 avian influenza in Egypt resulted in 183 confirmed cases and 56 deaths  between 2014 and 2016. The majority of clinically confirmed cases were linked to close contact with diseased backyard birds.

In the United States, contact with backyard poultry is associated with hundreds of multistate salmonella outbreaks every year. A 2016 USDA survey of backyard poultry owners found that 25 percent of respondents did not wash their hands after handling birds or eggs. In another study, the majority of backyard owners knew little about identifying or preventing poultry diseases.

Commercial poultry facilities protect birds against a variety of diseases by injecting vaccines into growing chicks while they are still in the egg. Many backyard growers do not know to request vaccinated birds when they purchase chicks or eggs. In 2002 an outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease in California originated in backyard flocks and spread into commercial poultry operations. Operators had to euthanize more than 3 million birds. They received compensation from USDA for doing so, which cost taxpayers US$161 million. USDA also had to restrict poultry exports, which caused economic losses for commercial poultry producers.