I’ve seen a lot of media coverage lately about salmonella and backyard chickens. The Center for Disease Control has issued specific guidelines for backyard chicken keepers for avoiding salmonella, claiming that salmonella is “common” in chickens. But is the media sensationalizing the issue, blaming chickens for a problem that really belongs to their breeders and scaring people away from having contact with chickens?
It is not surprising that the CDC would report that salmonella is “common” in chickens since there are approximately 9 billion chickens born inside of industrial hatcheries every year in the U.S. alone, in extremely overcrowded and awful conditions. And many of the same hatcheries selling to factory farms are also selling “direct mail” chicks to backyard chicken keepers.
Food Safety News reported on one such major outbreak of salmonella in 2011 where 39 people in 15 states were sickened. The contaminated chicks and ducklings causing the outbreak were traced to a mail-order hatchery called Feed Store Chain A. Almost every other significant outbreak I’ve seen reported on in the news has also been linked to a hatchery.
This led me to interview some experts that really know chicken health. I asked them to weigh in on a couple of specific questions I had. 1. How likely is a chicken to contract salmonella after he or she has been tested negative and has since been living in a healthy and sanitary environment? 2. What is the likely source of salmonella in chickens?
Dr. Peter Sakas, a leading avian vet in the Chicago area with 30 plus years of practice: “In my experience I have never seen Salmonella in any of the backyard chickens I have examined/tested. I believe it is more likely due to the environment and the conditions these birds are exposed to in a commercial setting with a strong possibility that it may be due to the processing/storage of poultry products.”
Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns, an advocate for chickens for 30 years now: “There are about 2,500 Salmonella strains and most are innocuous as I understand it. I’m most familiar with Salmonella enteriditis because it’s been identified as a major cause… of food poisoning from eggs since the 1980s, its prevalence linked to intensive confinement of chickens which led to SE, an intestinal bacteria, migrating to the ovaries of caged hens and being integrated into their eggs during formation. It seemingly has to do with the overwhelming demand on intensively-housed hens’ immune systems having to cope with all the unnatural stressors including pathogens in intensive confinement. I’ve been handling chicken droppings and raw eggs since the mid-1980s without ever getting sick and I don’t wash my hands every time I handle them.”
Pattiane Pascual, life-long animal rescuer: “Despite having been born with a severe immune deficiency, a blood disorder, and genetic anemia, I’ve never contracted any disease from the many chickens in my life. I lived in Argentina from birth until age 4 during which time my brother and I practically lived in the fenced-in yard where the chickens lived. We never got salmonella.” “I frequently rescue chickens and have shared my home with them where I live now, in Paterson NJ. I am much more concerned about careless factory farm workers contaminating my vegan food.”
My Pet Chicken: “[P]resuming your coop is clean and roomy and you provide fresh food and water for them at all times, it is doubtful your home flock would contract salmonella.”
Interestingly enough, the USDA’s clever safe handling video does not warn consumers and backyard chicken enthusiasts to be careful where they buy chicks from. And they certainly don’t encourage adoption. That would be bad for the egg business.
As a rescuer myself who has handled chickens in many different situations and who has close contact with them, I have never personally become ill with salmonella or anything else, for that matter, as a result. Each new bird we rescue is immediately examined and tested for any communicable disease before being re-homed and introduced to their flockmates, to prevent any spread of disease. Our chickens live in sanitary conditions. We boost their immune system with a well-balanced diet consisting of quality feed we mix ourselves and plenty of fresh vegetable scraps. We also provide them with a probiotic formula for improved digestive health and add apple cider vinegar to their water.
So don’t fear the chicken. If you want to keep chickens, first become well informed about the potential resposibility you’re accepting. Please adopt from your local shelter or sanctuary or research school chick hatching programs. Have your birds examined by a competent vet and be a responsible guardian of these magnificent birds.