I recently read an article claiming that we've just had an outbreak of Salmonella from backyard  chickens. Apparently, in the first half of this year, 611 people got sick, and one  person even died, from Salmonella linked to backyard chicken flocks. 

Of course, when I hear this, I have to wonder: Is it a horrible idea that we’re keeping chickens?  Are we putting our kids at risk? Is it a bad idea to encourage my customers to get a  flock at home? The more I think about it, the more questions I have... Are these “outbreaks” localized? Are they becoming more prevalent? Can I do anything to  avoid or reduce my chances of getting salmonella from my chickens if they do have  it? If we haven't caught it from them in the last 8 years, can we assume we won’t in  the future?
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The tempting conclusion to draw from this news is that we should get rid of our  backyard flocks right away (and if you were considering getting chickens, it’s easy to  read this and decide to take a pass on the whole thing). 

But before we made any rash decisions in our house, I chose to get more information. I need to know: How risky is it to keep backyard chickens  compared to, say, preparing raw chicken at home, eating at a salad bar at a  restaurant, or otherwise going about my regular business? While the news is  interesting, a little alarming, and even dramatic, the information provided is woefully  inadequate for the purpose of making an intelligent decision as to whether urban  chicken-keeping is a relatively safe activity.

So I did a bit of research, and I want to share my basic analysis with you. I’ve taken  some analytical liberties here and there, but I think my conclusions are sound, given  the data that’s readily available. I’ve put  links at the bottom of this post, if you want to look at my sources in more detail. Hopefully, this gives  enough solid information to help you decide if the salmonella risk  associated with keeping backyard chickens is worth it for you and your family.
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First, what is an outbreak? When I think of an outbreak, I think of that terrifying movie: an  army of doctors in hazmat suits tending to people quarantined under military guard.

Turns out, an outbreak occurs when the CDC concludes that 2 or more people got  an illness from the same source.

 So yes, they can report on “outbreaks” of Salmonella  as small as 2 people. One particular outbreak I found involved only 5 people. 

I started by reviewing the CDC reports of outbreaks for the last few years and found  that there seems to be a “live poultry” or “backyard chicken” outbreak of some  kind every year. When they can, the CDC specifies the likely source of the outbreak-- a  hatchery in this or that state, etc. 

In 2015, there were 252 cases; 363 cases in 2014; 990 cases in  2013; and 334 cases in 2012. That’s an average of 485 cases per year, using just the last 4  complete years. (While the 2016 outbreak is now  considered over, the calendar year obviously isn’t.) For the sake  of a broad analysis, let’s just use an average of 500 cases per year.

How does that compare to some other outbreaks?
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In 2015, 907 people got Salmonella from Mexican cucumbers (the biggest one in the last 5  years), 192 got it from pork, and 133 got it from “small turtles.” There were many  other smaller outbreaks caused, for example, by prepared products, like breaded  chicken, pistachios, raw scraped ground tuna product (what on earth is that?),  ground beef or protein shake powder, as well as from household pets, like crested  geckos, bearded dragons and hedgehogs. So, does that mean backyard flocks are  more dangerous than pork or tiny turtles, but safer than Mexican produce? Don’t  answer that yet, because we still don’t have enough information.

While it’s somewhat reassuring that this outbreak isn’t hugely bigger (in terms of total numbers) than other outbreaks, it is among the larger of the typical “outbreaks.”  Should that frighten us? 

To answer, it’s helpful to know how many people are engaging in the  questionable activity in order to determine the rate at which people get sick from any given  source. 

Even though 133 people got Salmonella from tiny turtles, it matters if only 133 people owned  tiny turtles in the first place... that would mean that 100% of tiny turtle owners  got sick.  That’s obviously not the case, but the fictional example makes a point about the relative riskiness of any given activity.

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Since it’s not possible to determine how many people keep tiny turtles (they’re  illegal because they can carry Salmonella!) or how many people eat pistachios or bought a  particular brand of vegetable, I decided to take a look at national numbers to get an  idea of the relative rates of infection.

So, off I went to get some information on chicken ownership, as well as overall  Salmonella cases throughout the US, to see if the rate of Salmonella infection could  help me answer my question. Here’s what I found out:

One FDA study of 4 cities put average chicken ownership at 0.8%. But that includes  New York, where, big surprise, it’s pretty close to zero, while Miami came in at 1.7%.  Los Angeles was 1.2%.  Homes across the US that have more than an acre are around  4%. 

So ownership is clearly going to be higher in suburban and rural areas,  compared to densely populated cities. But for the sake of this discussion, let’s  assume, conservatively, that ownership is only about 1% of households, even though it’s  likely to be quite a bit higher. 

There are 124 million households in the US, so if 1% of them have chickens, that’s about 1.24 million chicken-owning households who are playing  Russian backyard-chicken roulette. So, from our average case number above, if  roughly 500 of them get Salmonella per year, that’s.... drumroll please.... 500 divided by  1.24 million = .0004 or 4/100ths of 1 percent or 0.04%. 

Put another way, that’s one  case for every 2500 households in any given year.
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Now, I still don’t know how that stacks up against my likelihood of getting Salmonella from all other sources. Is owning chickens wildly more dangerous than,  say, just going about my daily routine? So to compare, I looked up overall infection  rates for Salmonella each year in the US. 

Turns out there are 1,000,000 reported  cases per year nationwide. Given there are 318,000,000 people in the US, that’s  1,000,000/318,000,000= .3% or one American in 318 that gets salmonella each  year. That’s quite a bit more.

It looks like I’m between 7 and 8 times more likely to get Salmonella from something  other than backyard chickens, just by living in the US. Put another way, my chance of getting Salmonella if I don’t have backyard chickens is 0.3% and my chance of getting it from my chickens alone is 0.04%. 

Therefore, owning chickens increases that risk from .3% to .34% (which still rounds down to .3% by the way). Math-minded folks out there  may point out that I’m double-counting here: Those 1 million reported Salmonella cases include backyard poultry outbreaks, but  500 out of 1,000,000 is too small to have a meaningful effect on the answer.
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Keep in mind, I think this is a very conservative number. 

Why? First, I assumed 1%  chicken ownership. If that number were closer to 2%, that extra .04% turns into  .02%. Second, the CDC sometimes indicates how many of the cases were kids under  5, and it’s usually around one third. So if you’re a backyard chicken owner and  you’re 5 or older, that 0.02% risk drops to 0.013%. That’s pretty small.

Conclusion: I’m keeping my chickens, though I am going to continue to be careful  with them. We’ve had our chickens for years now.  They're part of the family. While it's  possible to get salmonella from backyard flocks, outbreaks are  frequently linked to specific hatcheries.  It’s also possible for your hens to acquire and/or carry Salmonella without showing signs of being sick – and if that is the case, it doesn’t automatically mean they'll pass it along to humans.

So here’s what you can do to minimize your risk of getting anything from your flock:

 Don’t kiss your chickens! (If you already keep chickens, you understand why this one actually isn't as crazy as it sounds-- lovable birds can be very tempting to kiss!)

 Use separate shoes/crocs/flip flops for walking in the coop, and keep those shoes outside so you don’t track poop in the house.

 Keep your chickens outside. Agains, sounds bananas at first. But yes, some people have house chickens... and yes, there is such a thing as a chicken diaper.

 ALWAYS wash hands after handling the chickens and/or cleaning the coop.

 Don’t let kids under 5 handle them.

 Be careful and wash hands and clothes thoroughly when visiting other chicken owners, flocks, or farms.

 Keep rodents out of the chicken coop. Rats and other vermin can carry Salmonella.
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If you’ve been considering getting backyard chickens, I hope you don’t let scary news like this change your mind. 

For us, the benefits   far outweigh the minuscule Salmonella risk. This wonderful, rewarding hobby is teaching our kids about keeping animals... enjoying fresh eggs that have not been washed in chemicals and were collected from  happy chickens that live healthy, happy lives.

The other chicken owners we know feel the same way. Hopefully you will, too.
 


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