Backyard Chickens: Can they make you sick?

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

By Emily Main

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can you get sick from back yard chickens?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.

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