The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting that public health officials in multiple states are investigating outbreaks of salmonella infections linked to backyard poultry — just as Philadelphia City Council mulls a bill that would allow residents to keep up to six hens on their properties.

Key points from the investigation

  • 219 people have been sickened in 38 states, and 27 had to be hospitalized.

  • One person has died in Tennessee.

  • In Pennsylvania, 12 people have fallen ill, and four in New Jersey.

  • One in four of those sickened are children younger than 5.

The agency’s investigation says the real number of people sickened by contact with the birds is “likely much higher than the reported number, as many people recover without medical care” and are never tested for salmonella.

Symptoms of salmonella include diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps. However, two types of salmonella, typhi and paratyphi, cause typhoid fever and paratyphoid fever.

The CDC says backyard chickens and ducks can look healthy and clean and still carry the bacteria, which lives in the intestinal tracts of animals. The germs can spread easily in places where the fowl live.

In 2021, 1,135 people are known to have gotten sick from contact with backyard poultry.

What about chickens in Philly?

The CDC’s warning comes as the trend toward keeping backyard chickens in Philadelphia has grown, especially during the pandemic. It’s estimated that thousands of chickens are being raised citywide, despite a 2004 ordinance designed to eliminate the practice.

» READ MORE: Philly’s backyard chickens are surging despite a city law that forbids it

The desire to raise chickens is causing debate and a movement to make backyard poultry legal.

Proponents say chickens are good pets that produce eggs that are fresher and tastier than store-bought ones. Chickens also consume ticks, mosquitoes, and the spotted lanternfly, helping keep yards pest-free. Hens, unlike roosters, are not particularly noisy. They eat food scraps, and their droppings can be used as garden fertilizer.

Opponents fear the fowl will spread not only salmonella, but avian flu. The CDC confirmed one case in May of human avian influenza found in a person who had contact with poultry infected with avian flu. (Current salmonella outbreaks are not related to recent cases of the separate H5N1 bird flu viruses detected in U.S. wild birds and poultry.)

Other concerns: Neighbors won’t know where the birds are being purchased, and some owners won’t know how to keep them from freezing or overheating. Another fear is that chickens will draw predators such as foxes and raccoons.

Opponents also question whether people living in rowhouses have enough space, grass, or property to properly manage a flock.

» READ MORE: Should Philadelphia legalize backyard chickens? | Pro/Con

At issue is a bill introduced by Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr. that would legalize small backyard flocks. The bill basically amends an existing city code that regulates animals. If adopted, the new regulation would allow up to six hens in enclosed coops sized to have at least one square foot per hen. The hens must also have open area to roam.

The bill is currently in the Council’s environmental committee and awaits a full Council vote.

If you have fowl, the CDC recommends:

  • Immediately wash your hands after touching birds, their eggs, or anything else where they live or roam.

  • Don’t “kiss or snuggle” the birds, or eat or drink near them.

  • Watch children who play around backyard poultry, and make sure they wash their hands.

  • Don’t let children younger than 5, who are more likely to get sick from salmonella germs, to touch chicks or ducklings.

  • Collect eggs often, don’t let them sit, and toss any that are cracked.

  • Rub dirt from eggs with fine sandpaper, a brush, or a cloth, but don’t wash them as that can pull germs into an egg.

  • Refrigerate eggs.

  • Cook the eggs until both the yolk and white are firm, and cook egg dishes to 160 degrees.