Backyard chickens raised for eggs and meat have been linked to an outbreak of salmonella, according to a recent story published by NPR. But though the outbreak was the largest ever to stem from contact with live poultry, it isn’t reason for people to abandon their outdoor flocks out of fear of illness.
The story cited a news brief from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which reported that between March 1 and September 24 last year, 195 people in 27 different states were infected with strains of salmonella, and 79 percent of them had been in contact with live poultry in the week before they became ill. But the story doesn’t note that the number pales in comparison to salmonella outbreaks linked to factory-farmed eggs and poultry. In one CDC study, the agency estimates there were more than 182,000 cases of egg-caused salmonella in the U.S. — including 70 deaths — in 2000. In 2010, more than 1,900 people contracted salmonella in an outbreak linked to Iowa egg farms that produced more than 2.3 million dozen eggs a week. And just last month, 124 people were sickened with salmonella in an outbreak linked to Foster Farms chicken.
These high numbers of salmonella cases from eggs and poultry are linked to the effects of factory farming. Chickens raised for meat are crammed tightly into warehouses that hold as many as 20,000 chickens, while the chickens raised for eggs live in sheds that can hold 100,000 birds and are often packed in battery cages with five to 10 other birds. Factory farms often contain huge amounts of feces and fecal dust produced by the birds, along with rat droppings and flies, and certain strains of salmonella can pass to the chicken if their food comes in contact with the fecal matter. In order to try to stem off the flow of disease within their flocks, farmers regularly feed the poultry antibiotics, which can lead to antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella: in 2011, 107 people were sickened and one killed from an antibiotic-resistant strain of salmonella in turkey.
Raising backyard chickens, without the help of antibiotics, provides no risk of developing antibiotic-resistant strains of disease, and is also a way of avoiding the health risks and cruelty associated with factory farms. The practice could decrease the risk of egg-bourne salmonella: one study found cage-free poultry facilities had about 40 percent less risk of harboring salmonella. Eggs from chickens allowed to eat grass and bugs can be healthier too, containing a third less cholesterol, twice as much omega-3 fatty acids and seven times more beta-carotene.
The NPR article states the outbreak from live poultry was traced back to a single hatchery in Ohio, and quotes the CDC in saying the best way to reduce risk of salmonella through live poultry contact is to wash your hands and clean equipment used to raise poultry. There are risks involved with raising animals for food — and backyard chickens are no exception — but in this case, the benefits of home-raised eggs outweigh any the risk of disease.