Backyard chickens can be a great hobby. They can also spread disease. Photo:
Backyard chickens can be a great hobby. They can also spread disease. Photo:

Post by Nancy Shute, The Salt at NPR Food (3/24/13)

Backyard chickens have become a coveted suburban accessory, one that packages cuteness, convenience and local food production in one fluffy feathered package.

But animal husbandry can be a nasty business, a fact that’s often glossed over by poultry partisans like Martha Stewart and New Yorker writer Susan Orlean.

Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report doesn’t do gloss. In its latest edition, this chronicle of all things contagious reports on a 2012 salmonella outbreak among 195 people in 27 states.

Most had had contact with live chickens, and many had purchased the birds from an Ohio mail-order hatchery for backyard flocks.

“This outbreak investigation identified the largest number of human illnesses ever linked to contact with live poultry during a single outbreak,” the MMWR report concludes, “and it underscores the ongoing risk for human salmonellosis linked to backyard flocks.”

The hatchery that was the source of the birds participated in a program to eliminate the spread of salmonella strains that cause illness in birds, but doesn’t certify the poultry as free of strains that could infect people.

But it’s no surprise to anybody in the zoonotic disease world that chickens can spread human disease. Remember those warnings not to buy baby chicks for Easter presents? One big reason is that they can spread salmonella.

Humans can get salmonella from chickens by touching them or their manure, according to the CDC. The birds can spread the bacteria even when they look healthy. The agency says the best way to reduce risk is to wash hands after handling birds — and make sure that children wash their hands, too.

Public health officials are also worried about backyard flocks and bird flu. The USDA provides tips on how to keep domestic fowl from playing a role in a future global pandemic, with no less than backyard poultry expert Andy Schneider, aka The Chicken Whisperer, as their spokesperson.

Buying eggs from the supermarket is a relatively recent invention, as Orlean has pointed out. So maybe the return of backyard chickens is a return to normal. And that’s normal, germs included.

Copyright 2013 NPR.

Backyard Chickens: Cute, Trendy Spreaders Of Salmonella 24 March,2013NPR Food

  • Lynne PoodleChick

    What an unnecessarily alarmist article. Yes, of course you take precautions with live poultry and eggs, just as you do when you clean the cat box, let your dog lick you on the mouth, dine in restaurants, buy produce, use the bathroom while doing food prep or eating at home, clean chicken for eating…hmmm, what else? There is a learning curve to keeping backyard poultry and the veterinary and public health officials have been very calmly and reasonably reaching out to the suburban and urban poultry keepers to get them up to speed on keeping poultry safely. They have hardly “glossed over” the issue of bacteria, but they certainly don’t come at it with their hair on fire. That makes it so less interesting I suppose but far more responsible. Chicken-keeping doesn’t need to be scary.

  • AnonymouseIsAWoman

    Dogs, cats, reptiles, horses, and any other domestic or pet animal that people are likely to have contact with can carry zoonotic diseases. The real issue here isn’t poor Biddy in the Backyard, it is sanitation, including the proper handling of food products.
    Quite a few serious diseases are directly transmitted between human beings – does the author think that we need to move into isolation bubbles?

  • Thomas Kriese

    It’s a real shame this story was was cross-posted here on KQED rather than linking to the original NPR’s blog ( where there’s a much richer discussion going on which echoes what Lynne has posted below.

    By reposting the Ms Shute’s alarmist content here on its own (a practice that’s been done by numerous local NPR station web sites), you’re doing a disservice to readers/listeners by alarming them unnecessarily with the headline and burying the lede of “as with all things dirty, just wash your hands when you’re done.”

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