by George Looby

There are few sights more wholesome than a flock of hens busily scratching around in a backyard setting. It is somewhat disturbing to learn, however, that tranquil picture may have real problems just under the surface. Dan Flynn reported in Food Safety News that all but one U.S. state has reported outbreaks of Salmonella attributed to contact with backyard flocks.

One might assume the large production operations would be responsible for such outbreaks, but their surveillance programs are so well developed that diseased or compromised birds are eliminated from the flocks at the first sign of problems. Poultry can be infected with Salmonella and show no outward signs of illness. They can carry and shed the organisms and act as a source of infection for the humans who come in contact with them. Not surprisingly, young children represent a large percentage of those infected. In a recent study of 850 people who became ill as the result of a Salmonella infection known to be of poultry origin, 192 (or 23%) were children under five.

The first rule to help prevent issues is to wash one’s hands after handling poultry or any of the equipment or utensils associated with them. Washing with warm, soapy water can do more to prevent problems than any other single activity. If soap and water are not readily available, a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol is acceptable.

A pair of shoes could be set aside to be worn in areas where poultry range, and they should be kept outdoors. Children under five, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems should avoid contact with poultry of any age. It is further suggested that no one should eat or drink in any area where poultry are housed. Do not kiss or snuggle poultry of any age. When cleaning poultry equipment, do it outside wherever possible. Face masks are strongly encouraged when cleaning poultry houses.

Outlets that sell chicks can initiate some protocols to avoid selling infected birds. Purchase chicks only from hatcheries that have adopted the USDA’s Best Management Practices to Mitigate Salmonella Contamination and voluntarily participate in the USDA’s National Poultry Improvement Plan (USDA-NPIP) Salmonella Monitored Program. Chicks that are on display should be placed where children cannot touch them. Hand washing stations should be available to visitors with signage stressing the importance of using them. Areas where poultry is sold should be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized between shipments of chicks.

Mail order hatcheries should provide appropriate informational material to prospective buyers to ensure they are fully aware of any possible health hazards. Mail order hatcheries should also participate in the USDA-NPIP Salmonella Monitored Program in which hatcheries certify that their flocks are monitored for Salmonella bacteria that may cause illness in humans.

A Salmonella infection’s symptoms appear like any other gastrointestinal infection. Those affected would have an elevated temperature, diarrhea and stomach cramps after exposure and be generally miserable for four to seven days. For the physician treating those at higher risk, determining the best treatment can be challenging. As with so many microorganisms, the many serotypes of Salmonella have developed varying degrees of resistance to many commonly used drugs.

This problem is unlikely to go away any time soon so it behooves everyone handling poultry to stick to the common sense rules and avoid excessive handling.