Is Backyard Farming Unsafe for Pregnant Women? Part 1: Poultry
About the Is Backyard Farming Unsafe for Pregnant Women? Series
At the beginning of pregnancy I asked the midwife if there were any safety precautions I had to take due to our homesteading operations. She gave me a memorably vacant look and referred me to a doctor who proceeded to give me the same memorably vacant look and no useful information whatsoever. The best they could muster was “wear gloves” and that was the end of that conversation.
Clearly the health of my pregnancy was in my own… gloved hands. And judging by the numerous online forums I visited in my quest for information many of you have had similar experiences with your own caregivers. Apparently the medical community just isn’t into backyard farming as much as we are. Shocking, I know.
Family farms still exist so somebody somewhere must know something about being pregnant on a farm. Lucky for us they’ve shared some of that knowledge on the internet. Some, not all. There are still instances where I was unable to find pregnancy specific information in which case I reverted to general information about health and the related activity. If something is risky for a healthy person then it’s reasonable to assume the risk is elevated for a pregnant person.
This series lists the findings of my research in an easy to read format for all of my fellow backyard mamas and mamas-to-be. The series has 6 parts:
Is Backyard Farming Unsafe for Pregnant Women?
Part 1: Poultry
Any domesticated fowl raised for meat or eggs.
We ourselves have eight poop machines enclosed in a run in the backyard. Given the ease and outcome of caring for them I would argue that chickens are the most popular homestead animal. Historically they are also the homestead animal most likely to be raised by women so it wasn’t surprising when I was able to find much more useful information about raising them while pregnant than “wear gloves.”
Handling the Chickens
My Pet Chicken, the website where we bought our own flock as day old chicks, explains that chickens can get toxoplasmosis just like cats. Had my mid-wife or doctor known that fact I bet their advice would have been significantly different. They don’t tell women to “wear gloves” when cleaning the litter box and they sure haven’t seen the inside of a deep bedded chicken coop in April.
If you’re expecting do not clean the chicken coop. Don’t leave the poo piling up until baby arrives but don’t do the cleaning yourself. Personally I consider this one of the best perks of pregnancy. It’s probably also not a great idea to spend extended amounts of time in the chicken coop. Get in for the eggs and get out. Leave any rearranging or perch fixing to someone else. The less you come into contact with the chicken droppings, the better.
The CDC lists several other common diseases that people can get from poultry, with Salmonella being the most likely in my opinion. While Salmonella sucks it isn’t especially harmful to pregnant women and the risk of contracting the disease is low. Basically don’t kiss your chickens or lick the roost bar. If you’re handling birds, wear gloves (yay gloves!) since the Salmonella bacteria may be present on their beaks and feathers. Always follow basic sanitation guidelines like not touching your face when doing chores and washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water. In the event that you should be pecked or scratched by a chicken, immediately clean the area and monitor the injury for any signs of infection. (If you’re wearing gloves, a few layers, and don’t get down to eye level with the chickens you should be able to avoid pecks and scratches altogether.)
Eating the Eggs
Is it safe to continue eating farm fresh, unpasteurized (gosh what a dirty word), unwashed (gosh what an even dirtier word) eggs while pregnant? Eggcellent question. (Ha, I crack myself up.)
Since becoming pregnant I exclusively use the eggs laid by our own chickens. Let me tell you why.
Pastured eggs are more nutritious. According to this study from Penn State, eggs from pastured hens contain twice as much vitamin E and omega-3 fats, more than double the amount of omega-3 fatty acids, and a higher concentration of Vitamin A. I also believe our eggs are less likely to contain harmful bacteria because we don’t wash our backyard eggs until immediately before use unlike the eggs you find in the grocery store (and because we keep our chickens clean, healthy, and outside like nature intended). In the 1970s the USDA began requiring egg producers to machine wash their eggs, a process that is still banned by many European countries. (Ever wonder why eggs abroad aren’t refrigerated at the store?) Numerous studies like this one have proven that egg washing significantly damages an egg’s natural protective cuticle and increases its susceptibility to Salmonella infection. I’d rather have a few chicken feathers or pieces of bedding stuck to the outside of my egg than Salmonella in it but that’s just me.
In 2016 Penn State published another study about how eggs from small flocks are more likely to contain Salmonella than those from commercial producers. I read the study and was surprised not by the findings but the definition of a “small flock.”
How many birds would you guess are in a “small flock?” Twenty? One hundred? The Penn State study defined a small flock as any number less than 3,000. THREE THOUSAND CHICKENS. Holy shit I thought keeping 8 chickens clean was tough work. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration enforces the Final Egg Rule (read about the depressing regulations for Final Egg Rule chickens here) for productions with 3,000 or more birds. Anything less and the farms are left to their own devices. Good luck cleaning the shit from 3,000 chickens, I hope you have a really good pair of gloves. I would be very interested to see whether Penn State would make the same statement that eggs from small flocks are more likely to contain Salmonella if they redefined a small flock as 100 birds or less.
But who cares if the chickens or eggs have Salmonella if the eggs are pasteurized, right? Maybe. I consulted the International Egg Pasteurization Manual and while pasteurization has been proven to significantly decrease the risk of Salmonella infection, I find the process itself to be questionable. Apparently there are numerous ways to pasteurize eggs ranging from radiation to hot water submersion. I struggled to find any studies about how the process may or may not affect the nutritional content of the eggs. Most studies instead focus on the function of the egg (i.e. does it take longer to whip into meringue if it’s pasteurized). Then there’s the whole food grade wax that companies like Davidson’s Safest Choice pour onto their pasteurized eggs before sending them to the store. I don’t like wax on my fruit and I don’t want it on my eggs. The jury is still out on pasteurization for me.
The way I see it, if my chickens are clean (thanks to someone else during my pregnancy) and healthy, I don’t wash the eggs until immediately before use, and I don’t eat the eggs raw (an iffy activity even when not pregnant), then our backyard farm fresh eggs and their superior nutrition should be enjoyed throughout the duration of pregnancy.
As for eating the chickens themselves, we haven’t indulged yet but that’s the plan once the girls stop laying in a few years. I really hope I’m not pregnant again when that happens (or ever) but here’s the information I found for when the time comes.
Raising Baby Chicks
Typically when raising chickens for meat you purchase them as a day old chicks and then butcher them anywhere between eight weeks and six months old depending on the breed. Here is a great overview from a University of Kentucky professor on raising day old chicks for meat. Aside from the mention of external parasites like lice and ticks (while pregnant you should not be responsible for applying topical treatments and you should minimize your exposure to the parasites), all of the same rules for handling the chickens applies to raising chicks. Have someone else clean the brooder box, wear gloves if you need to handle them, and follow basic sanitation practices. As cute as they are, refrain from showering the baby chicks in hugs and kisses.
Processing the Chickens
Once the butcher date rolls around I see no reason why pregnant you can’t process the meat yourself. If you follow a similar butchering process to this one then the biggest risk seems to be cutting yourself with the knife or burning yourself with the scalding water – both relatively low if this isn’t your first rodeo. The outstanding questions I have are whether exposure to the bird’s internal organs, especially the intestines, or cutting yourself and having chicken blood or saliva contaminate the cut pose a significant health threat. I was unable to find any specific information pertaining to those scenarios but if you wear gloves you’ll probably be fine. If your doubts are weighing you down then have someone else do the processing. And when you come across countless news articles about how unsafe processing poultry is, realize they are mostly referring to the horrific working conditions in commercial processing plants. (All the more reason to raise and process your own meat.)
Raising and processing chickens seems like a lot of work, why not just buy chicken from the store? If you’re a backyard farmer then you probably already have multiple answers to that question. If not then we’ll have to get into the numerous motivations for raising your own meat in another post but for now let’s focus on the health benefits.
Eating the Meat
First and foremost, when you raise your own meat chickens you are in control of how they live and what they eat. You are what you eat is just as true for chickens as it is for humans. Dr. Axe does a great job laying out the major differences (and dangers) of eating conventional chicken raised by commercial suppliers. As an expecting mom, for me the most alarming attribute of factory farmed chicken is the potential for hormone disruption. Hormones play such a huge part of pregnancy (and everything else) that I fear any type of disruption would be significantly amplified. The high incidence rate of bacteria and Salmonella in conventional chicken and suppliers’ regular use of antibiotics are also major causes for concern.
Beyond how they live and what they eat, there is also the matter of what exactly they are. Well it’s chicken, aren’t they chickens? If it looks like a chicken and forages like a chicken then yes, it’s a chicken. The problem is the hybrid broilers used on the commercial chicken farms do neither of those things. Just check out this homesteader’s experience raising hybrid chickens. The birds grow abnormally fast (exactly what they’re designed to do) while all but refusing to forage on pasture. A chicken that grows to huge sizes without eating a natural diet does not sound particularly appetizing. Or healthy for that matter.
I visited the websites of the top 5 commercial chicken producers in the U.S. to find out what exact breed of hybrid they use so I could do more research. I was unable to find the name of the chicken breed on any one of the websites. That doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence about the genetic make-up of these chickens. Take a look for yourself, maybe you’ll have better luck than I did.
If you are able to find the name of the chicken breed they use please take a screenshot of the website page and email it to me. My best guess is that they use the Cornish X, a hybrid curated from Cornish and Plymouth Rock chickens that is susceptible to the usual hybrid ailments such as ascites, leg problems, and sudden death syndrome.
When it comes time to cook your chicken (hopefully pasture raised meat from a good old fashioned heritage breed) follow the same common sense precautions you always do when handling raw chicken. Cook it until the middle is no longer pink and the juices run clear. Make sure to wash your hands thoroughly and any surfaces that come in contact with the chicken. Have a specific cutting board for raw meats and don’t use it to chop vegetables. You know the drill. And if you don’t then Baby Center UK maps it out for you.
Chicken eggs and meat are an excellent source of protein and nutrients during pregnancy and beyond. With relatively small risks and superior nutritional benefits to you as an expectant mother, I encourage you to continue tending your backyard flock or even start raising baby chicks for the first time. Just let someone else do the super dirty jobs, wear gloves, and enjoy the experience of being a chicken mama.
*Updated on April 18, 2018 – Listeria is a serious infection often caused by consuming raw or under cooked meats. While only a small number of people fall ill annually, pregnant women infected with listeriosis are at an increased risk of miscarriage, premature delivery, infection to the newborn, and stillbirth. Listeria can be prevented by thoroughly cooking all eggs and chicken meat before consuming and following basic food sanitation.
While chickens are arguably the most popular, they are not the only homestead bird in town. Ducks, geese, turkeys, and quail are also common choices for the backyard farm. They may quack or gobble instead of cluck but as an expectant mother that makes very little difference to your health. All of the safety precautions such as wearing gloves, not cleaning the coop, and cooking eggs and meat thoroughly apply to other species of poultry the same as they apply to chickens.
Raising other birds such as ducks or turkeys is surprisingly similar to raising chickens. For the most part they all have the same basic needs and are all susceptible to the same bacteria such as Salmonella. Follow the same safety precautions as you do with chickens and you should have no problem continuing to care for your flock.
In fact the only noticeable difference for you as an expectant mother in raising other types of poultry is most likely the quality of the eggs and meat. As we saw with chickens, home grown eggs and meat on pasture are nutritionally superior to their commercially grown counterparts and the same is true for other species of poultry.
Different species of poultry provide different levels and types of nutrients. Here is a great overview from Morning Chores about the nutritional differences between quail, chicken, duck, and goose eggs. I was already thinking about adding a couple of ducks to the backyard since we’re not zoned for a rooster but a drake is fair game. Just imagine the adorably delicious line of ducklings we might have come next spring… But I digress.
With such differences between eggs it should come as no surprise that the meat itself varies by species of poultry as well. For example, here is an in depth look at the differences between duck and chicken meat from Skip the Pie. Pay special attention to the vitamin section since I’m sure you’re already hyper aware of the benefits of vitamins during pregnancy. (Disclaimer: I could not confirm whether the chicken used in the comparison was commercially grown but I would assume it is. As we know, the nutritional benefits of pasture raised home grown meat may vary significantly.)
With what we know today it appears that keeping poultry is not unsafe for pregnant women. Cared for properly with adequate safety precautions, poultry should retain its status as a homestead staple for expectant mothers. Pregnancy gets you out of some dirty jobs like cleaning coops and brooders but otherwise it’s business as usual. I guess the mid-wife wasn’t so far off when she told me to wear gloves but I feel much better about the daily aspects of poultry keeping now that I’ve done my own homework.
If you’re an expecting, new, or experienced mom who keeps poultry I would love to hear about your own experiences in the comments. Dads too!
Subscribe to the blog to stay tuned for the next series installment, Is Backyard Farming Unsafe for Pregnant Women? Part 2: Rabbits, and happy birding in the meantime.
This post was shared on the Homestead Blog Hop.