By: Heather Williams

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and the respective state departments of health and agriculture are currently investigating eight human Salmonella infection outbreaks spanning several states. As of May 25, 2017, there were 372 infected people reported in 47 states.  From January 4, 2017 to May 13, 2017, 71 of the infected people were hospitalized and 36% were children under 5 years old.  No deaths have been reported so far.  Several kinds of bacteria have been indicated in this outbreak, including: Salmonella bacteria, Salmonella Braenderup, Salmonella Enteritidis, Salmonella Hadar, Salmonella I 4,[5], 12:I, Salmonella Indiana, Salmonella Infantis, Salmonella Mbandaka, and Salmonella Typhimurium.

Outbreaks Linked to Live Poultry

An outbreak is defined as an infection of 2 or more people from a common source.  Through epidemiologic, trace-back, and laboratory findings, the eight outbreaks being investigated are linked to contact with live poultry, including chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys.  Interviews of 228 people with Salmonella infection during the outbreak period reported indicated that 190 people reported contact with live poultry in the week prior to onset of illness. At 83% of those interviewed, the link between live poultry and infection was strong. Those reporting contact had purchased live baby poultry from different sources, including: feed supply stores, hatcheries, online, and from relatives.

Chicks, ducklings, and other live poultry can carry Salmonella bacteria even if they look and act healthy and are maintained in a clean environment.  Contact with the live poultry or even the areas where they live and roam can sicken people with Salmonella infection.  It is important to remember that you do not have to touch the bird to come in contact with the harmful bacteria.

Rise in Backyard Flock Popularity

Recent legislation changes have created a rise in interest in backyard flocks. Texas, in particular has passed a law allowing all residents to own up to six backyard chickens.  It prohibits neighborhoods and communities from banning privately owned fowl, with a few areas of regulation.  Some neighborhoods can include a provision of not allowing a rooster due to sound ordinance or require a particular distance between the coop and a residential structure.

Knowing where your food comes from and having access to fresh eggs is a great way for families to control their food supply and teach children where food comes from and responsibility of maintaining a homestead.  As the current multi-state outbreak brings to light, there are several risk factors to consider when making the decision to start and maintain your own backyard flock.

Salmonella Outbreak Trends

The CDC tracks outbreaks, indicating how many cases involve and the number of hospitalizations and deaths resulting from illness related to the outbreak.  Also tracked is the number of states in the United States affected by that Salmonella outbreaks.  2016 was a record year for live poultry related Salmonella cases.  Incidence had jumped from just 252 cases in 2015 to 895 cases in 2016. The 2017 numbers for live poultry related Salmonella infections are already 372 with 7 months in the year remaining.  Additionally, hospitalization resulting from illnesses linked to live poultry increased from 63 individuals in 2015 to 209 individuals in 2017. Prior to the 3 deaths reported in 2016 related to live poultry salmonella infection, no deaths had been reported since 2013.  There were 3 deaths reported in 2012 related to live poultry Salmonella infection.

How to Protect Myself and My Family While Enjoying My Backyard Flock

If you have decided the benefits outweigh the risk and want to enjoy your own backyard flock, there are safe ways to maintain them and better practices to incorporate to protect yourself and your family from illness related to your backyard flock.

General Safety

Salmonella lives inside the bird’s digestive tract, so poultry waste is a major source of contamination.  Salmonella also lives on the birds, so touching them introduces a risk of infection.  However, the first thing to keep in mind is that you do not actually have to touch the bird to come in contact with Salmonella bacteria.  You may come in contact with the bacteria by touching anything in the areas that the animals live and roam.  Do not consume food or beverages in those areas and do not allow the poultry in your house, in bathrooms, and particularly where food or drink is prepared, served, or stored.  This includes kitchens, outdoor patios, or outside family areas in which you may eat.

While the cute little chicks and friendly hens and roosters look cuddly, the CDC warns “do not snuggle or kiss the birds, touch your mouth, or eat or drink around live poultry.”  Young children should be supervised to ensure they are observing good safety procedures.  Keep in mind that children younger than 5 years old, adults over 65 years old, and those with weakened immune systems are at a higher risk for infection and should not handle or touch chicks, ducklings, or other live poultry.

Cleaning After the Flock

Clean any items or equipment used to take care of the chickens outdoors with soapy water.  This includes food bowls, egg collecting baskets, sheers used to cut feathers, etc.  Do not bring these items into your home, especially your kitchen or where food is prepared.

Egg Safety

Collect eggs often so that they do not spend a significant time in the nest or they can become dirty or even break.  If you do find a cracked egg, throw it away.  Do not consume cracked eggs, even if it is a small crack.  If eggs are dirty, brush off debris with a dedicated rough cloth or fine grit sandpaper.  Refrigerate in a designated egg container.  Eggs are porous and will absorb any bacteria in the refrigerator, so keep away from raw meats.  Raw or undercooked eggs may contain Salmonella, so cook eggs thoroughly.  Always wash your hands with warm soapy water when after handling eggs and use caution with what you touch as you make your way to the sink to avoid contaminating surfaces throughout your home.

What is Salmonella and What are the Symptoms?

Salmonella is a harmful bacteria found in many places, including backyard flocks and where they live. Onset of symptoms generally occurs between 12 and 72 hours of infection.  Illness usually lasts between 4 to 7 days with most people recovering without medical attention.  These individuals should stay hydrated and monitor systems.

Some may need to be hospitalized due to severity of symptoms or dehydration.  For more serious cases, Salmonella leaves the intestinal tract and infects the body.  Those cases require medical attention and antibiotics or illness may be fatal.  The very young, the very old, and those with a compromised immune system are at a higher risk of severe illness.

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