Dear Modern Farmer: How Do I Know If Backyard Slaughter Is Legal?

Dear Modern Farmer,

I’ve been raising hens (for eggs) at my suburban home for a while now. I’d like to add some chickens and maybe even turkeys for meat consumption as well. But I have no idea whether it's legal for me to slaughter my birds in my backyard. Will I be able to?

Thanks,
Backyard Birdie

Dear Birdie,

It sounds like backyard poultry is legal where you live, which is a good start. Assuming that there is no distinction within the local laws about the reason you’re raising chickens (eggs vs. meat), you should confirm the number of birds you are allowed to have given your lot size and location. Plus, if you are considering adding turkeys, make sure they are permissible, too. In my experience, some zoning codes specifically allow, restrict or define “poultry” as chickens only within the urban/suburban agriculture context. Incidentally, for an interesting read, you should check out the online diary of Kiera Butler over at Mother Jones on what it was like to raise and slaughter heritage turkeys at her urban home.

Though be aware that turkeys are typically counted differently for total number of poultry processed, with one turkey equaling four chickens.

In order to figure out whether you can slaughter and process the birds on your property, there are a few things to consider first. I’m going to assume that you are planning on less than 1,000 birds a year, a threshold number that starts to become important under federal USDA regulations concerning slaughter inspection, and also many state counterpart regulations (enforced by either the department of agriculture or public health). Though be aware that turkeys are typically counted differently for total number of poultry processed, with one turkey equaling four chickens.

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I’m also going to assume that you will be using the meat solely for personal or household use (i.e. there will be no sales involved). Not to get too technical here, but these things are important within the context of the federal Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA), which, depending on the number of birds you slaughter each year and/or your intended use after slaughter, could subject you to portions of the PPIA and USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) regulations. So, assuming those two things, you will not be subject to federal inspection regulations. If you were planning on more than 1,000 (but up to 20,000) birds and/or sales, then my response would be slightly different.

But first you need to determine whether on-site slaughter is allowed where you live. This might be tricky to figure out because so many of the backyard chicken ordinances that have been passed in recent years seem to contemplate poultry in the context of laying eggs, not as coq au vin. Just look at the range of how slaughter is addressed (or not) within in a small sampling of communities in the East Bay region of California. In Connecticut, any slaughter taking place on private property for personal consumption is not regulated at the state level, and is instead left to cities and towns to address at the local level; it is addressed similarly by the State of Utah as well.

How slaughter is addressed at the local level, if at all, varies widely. Many ordinances (like Douglas County, Colorado and Maplewood, Minnesota) expressly prohibit the practice, particularly in residential zones, thus requiring you to consider other options for slaughter. And though it seems to be less common, some zoning codes do allow backyard/on-site slaughter, though often with restrictions such as no outdoor slaughter. Louisville, Colorado is just one city currently contemplating allowing on-site slaughter, with a final vote expected in November. Sometimes even property zoned for agricultural use can face friction when it comes to on-site slaughtering. Many zoning codes are silent when it comes to on-site slaughter, though that doesn’t necessarily give you the green light to get the giblets yourself. It is always best to ask at the local zoning office or board of health, or call your state department of agriculture for assistance. It may turn out that you will have to go off-site for processing your birds.

Make sure you know what you are doing, and if you do not, ask at your local or county cooperative extension office for guidance.

If you find that on-site slaughter is allowed, make sure that you follow whatever requirements are specified at the state and local levels. No matter if the regulations are sparse or unclear, you should always undertake humane slaughter and good sanitation practices. Many states have humane slaughter laws on the books, but, sadly, many do not (or they create exemptions for personal-use slaughter). This does not excuse bad behavior or animal cruelty, even if unintentional. Make sure you know what you are doing, and if you do not, ask at your local or county cooperative extension office for guidance.

If you choose to hire someone else to do the slaughtering on your property, a word of caution: do your homework first. There have been notorious cases of inhumane, if not illegal, slaughter practices, like what’s been happening in Florida and which has resulted in a lawsuit filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund. As you might guess, backyard slaughter of animals is not without its controversy. Earlier this year, one legal scholar even posed whether backyard slaughter is the new NIMBY. There are several well known vocal opponents to the practice (James McWilliams is but one; see his arguments in The Atlantic and Slate) and there are groups that have formally organized in an attempt to thwart the practice, like Neighbors Opposed to Backyard Slaughter. Following applicable laws and best practices will go a long way at minimizing any nuisance claims raised by neighbors or charges of animal cruelty.

Depending on the number of birds you plan on slaughtering, it eventually may be worthwhile to take advantage of the services provided by a mobile poultry processing unit (MPPU), which are increasing in availability in many areas (click here or go here to get more information and links about MPPUs near you, but be sure to check your local and state laws too before engaging a MPPU, as there are usually licensing and training requirements if you will be using the MPPU yourself). MPPUs are also useful to small-scale poultry farmers (under 20,000 birds annually), who cannot slaughter poultry on their own property or farm. MPPUs are particularly useful in more urban and suburban areas for those that do not live near a state or federally inspected slaughterhouse, or cannot find one willing to take on smaller processing jobs.

For a really neat program that takes on volunteers to assist with processing birds using a MPPU each year, check out Pete and Jen’s Backyard Birds and Farm (out of Massachusetts). Another cool group that I discovered is the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network, which provides some great information should you ever decide to embark on a larger poultry processing enterprise. Good luck!

Note: This Q&A addresses slaughter of poultry only. It does not address the slaughter of other food animals (i.e. cattle, swine or goats), which are governed separately under federal law as well as many state and local regulations.

Disclaimer: This information is general in nature and for educational purposes only. It is not intended as specific legal or any other advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing thereof does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. The reader is encouraged to seek the advice of an attorney or other professional when an opinion is needed.

Kristen M. Ploetz, Esq., is a zoning/land use attorney and Founder/Manager of Green Lodestar Communications & Consulting, LLC (www.greenlodestar.com). 

Dear Modern Farmer: How Do I Know If Backyard Slaughter Is Legal?