No to backyard hens

On January 25th 2012, Toronto’s Licensing and Standards Committee voted against a motion made by City Councillors Mihevc and McMahon that requested a staff report to explore the implications of legalizing backyard hens.

You can see the results of the decision on the City’s website.

TFPC member Dr. Catherine Mah made a deputation at the committee meeting, as follows.

“Thank you to Committee Chair Councillor Palacio, Vice Chair Councillor Lee, and the rest of the Committee members and visitors for the opportunity to provide a deputation today.

My name is Catherine Mah.  I am a physician and research scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and an Assistant Professor in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.  I study food policy and public health issues.  I am also currently a member of the Toronto Food Policy Council.

I am here today in my capacity as a member of the Toronto Food Policy Council, and as a citizen and public health researcher with an interest in the backyard hens issue.

In my work, I have seen that a growing number of people in Toronto and elsewhere are interested in knowing more about where their food comes from, as well as taking a more active and informed role in their food choices.  This is very positive for food systems and for public health in Canada.  One approach that people have taken, for example, is to learn more about hands-on skills such as cooking and growing more of their own food.

In Toronto, it has been evident from news reports and other sources that some residents have already been raising backyard hens in the city as a source of household eggs.

From a health perspective, I think it is important that we gather all the necessary information to systematically consider the risks and benefits of this practice, in order to take a proactive approach to making the best decision possible for our city.  Other large and densely populated cities in Canada and the United States, including the City of Vancouver, have recently studied this issue, evaluated the risks and benefits, and have concluded that backyard hens can be kept safely, humanely, and securely in the urban environment.  For example, in a recent journal article in the Journal of Community Health, Dr. Sue Pollock and colleagues conclude that:

Overall, the risk of pathogen transmission given backyard chicken keeping appears to be low and does not present a greater threat to the public’s health compared with keeping other animals allowed by similar bylaws such as dogs and cats. Public adherence to proper hygiene and animal husbandry will significantly mitigate the risk of any disease acquisition from pathogens commonly found in chickens. Proper care and maintenance of flocks will help to minimize nuisance factors. Education and regulatory strategies should be utilized to avoid or mitigate risks.

Thus I think it is important that we take a proactive approach to designing a Toronto solution for backyard hens.  This could mean ensuring that the right conditions are in place so that those who wish to keep hens do so in a safe and appropriate way.

I wish to therefore recommend to the Licensing and Standards Committee Members that they support the motion to request a report from City staff on the issue of backyard hens in Toronto.  We need ways to have good, clear information gathering and communication on this issue between City Councillors, relevant City Divisions including Toronto Public Health, the Toronto Environment Office, Municipal Licensing and Standards, and Animal Services, and with Toronto community members.  I await this report with great interest and thank you for your time.”

References Cited:

Pollock, S. L., C. Stephen, N. Skuridina, and T. Kosatsky. 2011. Raising chickens in city backyards: The public health role. Journal of Community Health, published online ahead of print, November 15.