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.

 
 
 
 

How can we defeat NIMBYism? Here's a five-point manifesto

Terraced homes in Benwell show off their painted doors and windows in 2005 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. Image: Getty.

Housing in Britain is a policy cluster bomb. Millions of people now own homes which are far more expensive than they ought to be. But if the government builds more houses, and house prices fall, many homeowners will feel betrayed, their wealth and financial security inexorably bound to their ownership of a home that has seen its value inflated by the failures of the housing market.

For politicians, this matters a great deal, because homeowners vote.

There are many reasons why housing in the UK remains so expensive. Interest rates have hit rock bottom, and more people want to live alone. But the shortfall in supply still remains an explanatory factor. We now build as many houses in a year as we used to build in just four and a half months in the late 1960s. A shortfall in supply has pushed up prices.

The result is that the total market value of the UK’s housing stock now exceeds the cost of building it by some £3.7trn: a cool 40 per cent of the net worth of the entire country.

Land itself is not particularly scarce. What is truly scarce is land on which permission to build has been granted. High land costs have given us ‘generation rent’ and pushed up inequality.

The problem is that there are around fourteen million homeowners whose wealth is contained in their ownership of housing assets. This wealth is arguably illusory. Either it sits there as bricks and mortar and depreciates, or it gets passed down via the bank of mum and dad to pay for a deposit, or as an inheritance which is then deployed to buy another, equally over-priced house. But this is a tough argument to win.

And here we encounter the NIMBY problem. In principle, people may recognise the case for building more houses, but this doesn’t mean they wish to see new houses built in their town or village, let alone on adjoining green land. While this is an arguably selfish reaction, people often respond that new developments will fray over-stretched local public services, spoil the local environment, and destroy the character of their community.


Politics is about building alliances and changing minds. To tackle the problems of NIMBYism, the benefits of new housebuilding must be localised, democratised, and shared across communities in the following steps.

1: Capture value. As Labour’s recent green paper on housing noted, government should work with local authorities to enable them to buy land at a price closer to its existing use value, rather than the windfall values that are assigned once permission to build has been granted.

2: Build better, denser cities. The most attractive, walkable and popular parts of many cities are in the historic centre – think Edinburgh’s Old Town or Bath’s Royal Crescent – with many more homes per acre than in outer suburbs. The simplest way of building up city centres is by allowing residents to add new floors or extend existing properties. Higher housing density makes sense so long as it is coupled with good design codes, green space, adequate funding and municipal infrastructure to ensure that places are liveable. We should permit residents to democratically set their own design codes and determine planning permission to extend and modify properties.

3: Build more affordable housing on the green belt. Parishes generally have no right to amend their own green belts and can only allow very limited development on them. Together with other neighbourhood planning areas, they should be allowed to approve building on green belt land if they are satisfied landowners will provide high-quality homes that local people can afford, and adequate funding for the municipal infrastructure that is essential for communities.

Historically, that has been almost impossible. Building on greenbelt land is still subject to the requirement of “openness”, a nebulous stipulation around preserving the countryside’s open character that causes endless court battles and discourages building housing for those who need it most.

4: Enable councils to plan properly. Councils must have the freedom to negotiate with developers and impose real conditions upon them. Shelter has campaigned to fix the current system of ‘viability tests’ that is riddled with loopholes, allowing developers to get out of building affordable housing by saying they overpaid for land. We must give councils the powers to secure development of the standards and specifications they desire.

5: Empower councils with more devolution. As high-street shops close, many city centres are struggling. New student accommodation owned by universities and local institutions has had a transformative effect on some places, but more is needed. City councils and new regional mayors should have greater powers to spend tax revenues on addressing local housing supply and transport infrastructure.

Andrew Hindmoor is a professor of Politics at Sheffield University. John Myers is co-founder of the London YIMBY campaign.