Domestic chicken keeping needs more regulation to protect human and animal health

Ranging free in the yard. Image: thedabblist/Flickr/creative commons.

Colorado has received a lot of attention recently as one of the first states to allow recreational marijuana, but it’s also legalising other things. Denver, one of the USA’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 per cent of all U.S. households surveyed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported owning backyard fowl in 2013, and 4 per cent more planned to start in the next five years. That’s over 13, 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 per cent) allowed backyard poultry flocks.

Our lab group analyses 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.

Chicken owners in cities like Los Angeles are seeking a closer connection with their food..

When animals roamed the streets

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.

How civilians could help during World War I. Image: USDA.

Locavores and animal lovers

The 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.

Risks to humans and chickens

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 per cent 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.

Number of people infected with salmonella in four 2015 multistate outbreaks linked to backyard poultry. Image: CDC.

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 3m birds. They received compensation from USDA for doing so, which cost taxpayers US$161m. USDA also had to restrict poultry exports, which caused economic losses for commercial poultry producers.

Many animal control and welfare agencies around the country oppose allowing urban livestock. Some activists argue that it can foster abuse, inhumane conditions and the development of backyard “factory farms,” and increase burdens on thinly stretched animal shelters and rescue groups.


Few rules for backyard flocks

We began our study by reviewing every local law in the state of Colorado pertaining to livestock. Then we looked at Colorado animal shelter and rescue data for 2014 and 2015. We wanted to see whether counties with large commercial operations were likely to prohibit raising backyard birds; when most ordinances originated; and what animal care standards were written into local laws.

We found that 61 of 78 Colorado municipalities allowed backyard chickens, and only 13 municipalities explicitly banned the practice. Local laws most commonly controlled for coop design and placement, prohibited owning roosters and limited the total number of birds allowed. Unlike commercial guidelines or typical standards for domestic cats and dogs, most ordinances did not require vaccination or veterinary care.

Very few regulations required humane slaughter or disease reporting. Only four municipalities required owners to provide birds with food; 16 required water, and two mandated veterinary care as warranted. Many owners understand that water and food are basic necessities, but when cities do not codify these requirements, animals have little legal protection and are not officially entitled to veterinary care even when they are sick, injured or dying.

On the positive side, we found that most shelters had not yet experienced an increase in chicken intake, and reported that people were interested in taking in stray chickens. But several organisations were concerned that they would receive more chickens in the future as the number of homes with space for stray birds decreased.

Setting higher standards

We found several cities with model ordinances that safeguarded avian and human health. Fort Collins, home to Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, requires annual permitting fees that are collected by the nonprofit Larimer Humane Society. The agency educates owners about disease prevention and husbandry and connects them with veterinarians and agricultural extension agents.

Nonprofit animal welfare agencies often depend heavily on donations to run animal shelters and care for strays. Fee systems such as that required in Fort Collins can help them cover costs of managing unwanted and stray animals. And streamlined permitting overseen by animal welfare agencies and veterinarians can prevent many backyard diseases or catch them early.

The ConversationBased on our survey of Colorado, we believe cities need to carefully consider their backyard chicken regulations and develop strong legal frameworks that protect animal and human health and welfare. In particular, they should develop rules that require food and water, mandate veterinary care and connect owners with animal welfare agencies.

Catherine Brinkley, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Development, University of California, Davis and Jacqueline Kingsley, Master's Degree Candidate in Community Development, University of California, Davis.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The supply obsession won’t solve the housing crisis

More bloody houses. Image: Getty.

House prices are at record levels. Home ownership languishes near its lowest rate for a generation. And hundreds of thousands of young people can no longer afford to fly the nest.

In response to these three problems, the Chancellor is doling out cash for housing infrastructure. Meanwhile the new housing minister promises to “strain every sinew” to tackle what the Leader of the Commons recently referred to as the UK’s house-building “catastrophe”.

The new government firmly believes that supplying more houses is the route to solving all three aspects of the housing crisis. Unfortunately their diagnosis is faulty. Letting rip with housing supply will do almost nothing to solve any of them, as my new paper for the Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence today shows.

Prices are undeniably eye-wateringly high. At around eight times average household income, houses are more unaffordable to buy than at almost any point in the past. The government’s last housing white paper summed up the consensus: “The cause is very simple: for too long, we haven’t built enough homes.”

In fact, we have a housing surplus that keeps on growing. Since house prices last hit the bottom in 1996, we’ve added 3.7 million homes in England, while only 3.2 million new households have formed. As a result, the surplus of houses over households grew from 660,000 in 1996 to over 1.1 million by 2018, a trend that is apparent even in London and the South East. Early indications suggest that over the past year we’ve added over 240,000 more homes, while the ONS anticipates that only around 160,000 new households formed.

And it’s not just the numbers of houses that look healthy. Any shortage in supply should show up in declining affordability of private rented sector housing, because rents are determined by the overall supply and demand for places to live.

Yet private rent levels have actually become more affordable for the typical household. Since the late 1990s, average household incomes have risen by around 50 per cent after inflation while, on official data, rents are only up by around 20 per cent. This is the opposite of what we’d expect to see if housing supply had been failing to keep pace.

If we’ve been building enough, how have prices got so high? The answer lies in the fact that it’s not just the supply of and demand for places to live that drives house prices. Mortgage interest rates are the other critical factor. And over the past 20 years, interest rates have collapsed. Back in 1996 you could get a 75 per cent loan-to-value mortgage fixed for two years at around 6.9 per cent. By last year, interest rates on the same product were less than a quarter of that, allowing home buyers to sustain ever larger mortgages to chase spiralling prices up.

While more houses would lower prices, the impact will never be big enough. The results of academic studies consistently suggest that even adding 300,000 houses per year in England over next 20 years would only lower prices by something like 10 per cent. This is nowhere near ambitious enough to reverse the 160 per cent increase in prices we’ve seen since 1996.


Nor will a big supply boost raise home ownership. While high house prices can weigh on home ownership, a much bigger factor is first-time buyer access to mortgages. Home ownership peaked in 2003 at 70.5 per cent and drifted down slightly to 69.1 per cent on the eve of the financial crisis. But the real collapse followed the sudden halving of the number of loans issued to first time buyers after the financial crisis, as banks became more risk averse. The median deposit required jumped from 10 per cent in 2007 to 25 per cent in 2009. Lending to would-be home owners didn’t fully recover until 2016, by which time home ownership had crashed.

For young renters, too, the government’s policy offers very little. Over a million more of them live with their parents today than was the case 15 years ago. The reasons owe nothing to general housing supply. Rather, weak wage growth, the erosion of social housing as an option and deep cuts to housing benefit over the past decade, especially for young people, have made it much harder for them to afford a place of their own, even as affordability on average has improved.

However strained the sinews, the government’s one-size-fits-all approach will not resolve the housing crisis. Until interest rates rise, it’s hard to see how government can reduce house prices without introducing more stringent controls on mortgage lending in general. Meanwhile, it can raise home ownership by either subsidising first-time buyers, directing more lending their way, or reducing financial incentives for landlords. And if it wants to tackle the unaffordability of rented housing for many, particularly in London, it needs to reverse the cuts to housing benefit, build social housing, and get wages growing again.

None of these problems will be solved by building 300,000 houses a year. The sooner we focus on the real causes of our housing woes, the sooner we’ll have a chance of solving the crisis.

Ian Mulheirn is Executive Director at the Tony Blair Institute. His paper on tackling the housing crisis is published by the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence.