The Risks Of Eating Backyard Chicken
By Tom Seest
At BackyardChickenNews, we help people who want to raise backyard chickens by collating information and news blended with our own personal experiences.
Among the biggest questions about backyard chickens is whether they are safe to eat. Many food safety journalists focus on outbreaks of disease from large poultry companies, but chickens can also be home to bacteria that can be harmful to humans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 219 illnesses originating from backyard poultry were reported in 2022. Twelve percent of these cases were hospitalized, and one person died of a salmonella infection.
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Backyard chickens produce nutrient-rich eggs. They are also excellent composters, waste recyclers, and weed eaters. What’s more, backyard chicken eggs are far healthier than store-bought ones. Free-range chickens graze on grass and feed on insects, so their eggs are naturally rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and are much more nutritionally balanced.
Backyard chicken eggs are also safer to eat than those from hens raised in cages. Although caged eggs contain dangerous bacteria, the eggs from backyard chickens are far more nutritious and safe. Backyard chickens’ eggs are not only fresher than store-bought ones, but they also taste better.
Despite the safety of backyard chicken eggs, you should still follow some basic precautions when eating these eggs. Backyard chicken eggs may contain Salmonella bacteria, which can cause serious illness in people. The bacteria can live on the eggshells and inside the egg. Luckily, most of these bacteria are destroyed by cooking. However, if you are unsure whether your chicken eggs are safe to eat, consult with a physician before consuming any eggs.
CDC data show that one in 20,000 eggs may be contaminated internally. Even the healthiest-looking chickens can carry Salmonella. However, these infections are extremely rare. According to the American Egg Board’s Egg Safety reference, the average consumer will only come into contact with a contaminated egg one time in 84 years. Infection with salmonella can lead to fever, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps. If severe enough, the infection can even cause hospitalization.
Regardless of how clean the eggs are, they should be washed thoroughly before eating. If an egg is too dirty, you can rinse it in warm water. Alternatively, you can scrub it with a vegetable brush. Make sure to rinse your hands thoroughly after washing the eggs to remove bacteria.
When buying backyard chicken eggs, ask the seller about the living conditions of the flock and their methods of egg storage. Also, ask about the age of the eggs. Generally, backyard chicken eggs are safe to eat if they are not damaged in any way. However, stale and cracked eggs can make you sick.
While eggs from healthy backyard chickens are not necessarily a health risk, eating eggs from sick hens can cause gastrointestinal illnesses, such as salmonella. While the infection can be treated with antibiotics, the symptoms are sometimes severe enough to require medical treatment. The infection is not always a result of eating raw or undercooked eggs but rather from improper handling. Handling chickens can introduce salmonella into the mouth, and touching the mouth can accidentally transmit the infection. This is why it’s important to avoid cuddling and handling sick chickens.
Backyard chickens also harbor bacteria that cause diarrhea, abdominal pain, and sometimes even kidney failure. A recent study from Finland found that humans could contract Campylobacter spp. from chicken eggs and may even have an infection of their own. Although this particular bacteria is uncommon in humans, it is still important to protect yourself from it by washing your hands and wearing a protective mask when handling poultry.
Live chickens carry many bacteria, including E. coli, which is potentially fatal to humans. These bacteria are often carried by backyard chickens and can infect humans through their droppings. The bacteria can also be transferred through contact with their cages, bedding, and feed and water dishes. Those who touch the poultry can be infected, especially young children who have a weakened immune system.
Another concern for poultry owners is the risk of bird flu. Although the H5N2 strain of bird flu is relatively mild and only affects poultry, it is a threat to backyard flocks. The disease is passed from wild waterfowl to chickens, so it is important to keep your flock clean and safe.
Infected chickens may also carry a bacterium known as Chlamydia psittaci, which can cause pneumonia in humans. Infected chickens are likely to exhibit respiratory symptoms and may lose their appetite. Sick hens may also develop a mass in their intestine. Infected chicken eggs can be passed to humans, particularly young children and elderly adults.
The CDC and the USDA are working to develop effective biosecurity measures for backyard chicken owners. The CDC’s website has tips for flock owners to protect their flocks. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is coordinating with veterinary and public health officials to investigate the outbreak. Many of the affected people purchased baby chicks from feed supply stores, websites, and from friends and relatives.
Backyard chickens are generally easy to please and will happily eat just about anything you give them, but certain foods are toxic to them and need to be avoided. Some of these include chocolate, coffee, salt, artificial flavors, and rotten fruits and vegetables. Even citrus fruits are toxic for chickens and should be avoided.
While some types of fruits and vegetables are beneficial to chickens, they contain high levels of solanine, which is toxic to chickens. It can also attack the chicken’s nervous system. Avoid feeding your chickens green potatoes and throw their skins in the compost pile. Some other vegetables are safe for chickens to eat, such as lettuce, celery, and onions.
Some plants that are toxic to chickens include nightshade plants. These plants contain cardiac glycosides, which affect the heartbeat. They can harm even healthy adults, but even two leaves of this plant can be fatal to a chicken. It’s best to avoid feeding your backyard chickens this kind of plant.
In addition to avoiding these foods, you should avoid giving your backyard chickens organic kitchen scraps. While garlic and onions are poisonous for dogs, these foods can also be toxic for chickens. Onions and garlic can be toxic to dogs, but spinach can cause serious problems for your chickens. Their digestive system cannot handle the acidity, which may cause their feces to be too wet or too salty.
Avocados are another common food that can cause illness in chickens. The toxin found in avocados is called persin and can cause respiratory difficulty, heart damage, and sudden death. Avocado flesh is safe for chickens, but the avocado skin and pit can contain persin.
The bracken fern is another plant that can be toxic for chickens. Aside from bracken fern, this plant also contains ricin, which is highly toxic for chickens. When chickens ingest this plant, they will suffer lethargy, anemia, and tremors. It’s advisable to remove the bracken fern from your backyard. Likewise, rhubarb leaves contain high levels of oxalic acid, which can be fatal to chickens.
Eggplants are another food that is toxic to chickens. It is best to avoid iceberg lettuce as it contains oxalic acid, which is toxic to chickens. Most lettuces are safe for chickens, but iceberg lettuce may cause severe digestive problems for them. However, spinach is also safe for chickens and should be fed in moderation.
Be sure to read our other related stories at BackyardChickenNews to learn more about raising chickens in your backyard.