As the coronavirus has spread across the country, weak links in the food supply chain that have created temporary shortages have led to real worries about food insecurity. Google searches for things like gardening and food preservation have exploded, much to the delight of many health advocates. However, the recent surge in backyard chicken farming has experts worried about the potential for spreading devastating bird diseases that could threaten the entire U.S. poultry industry.
Chicken hatcheries often see an increase in sales when the economy hits a rough patch. Tom Watkins, owner of Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster, Iowa, recently told Business Insider that he estimates his staff has taken an entire year’s worth of orders in just the past two months. Watkins is definitely grateful for the business but he says what’s different about the current demand spike than previous surges is the number of first-time customers.
According to Watkins, he and other producers are worried that the boom in amateur chicken farming could lead to disease outbreaks that these novices are ill-equipped to deal with, and most likely might not even recognize. These aren’t baseless alarms, either. Outbreaks originating from backyard farms have resulted in millions of dollars in losses for the poultry industry over the years.
An avian influenza outbreak in Iowa in 2015 that ended up costing $433 million to bring under control and led to the destruction of 34 million birds across 77 farms was traced to one backyard chicken farm. The outbreak also led to a national increase in egg prices and around 8,500 people ended up losing their jobs. In 2018, the highly contagious Newcastle disease was found in backyard chicken farms in Los Angeles and the contagion is still spreading. Over 1.2 million birds have died or been euthanized and the disease has now spread to more than 470 flocks in California, Utah, and Arizona.
Livestock producers are well aware of the heightened risks that these backyard operations are exposed to. Isolating farm animals from infectious diseases spread by wildlife is a major reason why poultry and pigs are housed indoors. Vaccines are key to maintaining effective biosecurity but it’s estimated less than 10% of backyard poultry are vaccinated.
There is also the issue with bird owners transporting diseased poultry out of infected counties, often in violation of quarantine rules. Additionally, the California Department of Food and Agriculture believes Newcastle has continued in Southern California because backyard farmers are ignoring orders to kill infected birds. The government doesn’t oversee these backyard coops, though, so they remain a weak spot in the biosecurity chain all across the country.
Live birds also carry diseases that infect humans. Outdoor chicken farms have been linked to scores of Salmonella cases, something health officials are worried about because of the increase in antibiotic resistance found in some infections. Salmonella can also pass those resistant genes on to other bacteria, making those infections increasingly harder to treat as they spread.
And of course, there is the worry about other diseases with an animal origin that skip to humans. Of late, there’s been SARS, swine flu, mad cow disease, and, in all likelihood, the current coronavirus. The more interaction there is between humans and animals, the higher the chances of a virus or bacteria making the jump from one to the other.
While raising chickens in the backyard might seem like a “fun” hobby, most don’t understand what they’re getting into and experts are encouraging hatchling suppliers to pass along their own knowledge where they can. Brent Credille, a professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine recommends poultry hobbyists reach out to experienced farmers for help and hopes commercial farmers will welcome their interest. “Whether we help them or not, my guess is they’re going to do it anyway,” he added. (Sources: Business Insider, The Conversation, STAT)