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The Fuzzy Fluffy Super-Cute Health Threat In Your Backyard

A day-old chick.
A day-old chick.
Image via Shutterstock.net.

An epidemic is moving across the United States. It has invaded 35 states and sickened 324 people, including 88 children. It has put 66 people into hospitals, and one of the sick people has died. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, responding as it always does to outbreaks that menace Americans, is struggling with how to stop its advance—because the things causing the epidemic are widely distributed across the country, come from many places, and are hard to trace back to their source.

And also, are super-cute. The cause is backyard chickens.

Since January, and continuing into June, there have been seven separate outbreaks of Salmonella—each caused by a different strain of the bacterium and each stretching over multiple states, from 16 down to seven—that have been proved to originate in live chicks and ducklings bought by mail or in feed stores and kept at home or at a school.

Baby chicks and ducklings and the birds they grow into may not sound like much of a threat. But in addition to the 324 cases they have caused this year (so far; the CDC plans to update the case count in the next two weeks), backyard poultry caused 252 cases of illness last year, 363 cases in 2014, 514 cases in 2013 (including 356 cases caused by one Salmonella strain); and 334 in 2012. That is 1,757 cases in 5 years.

If that doesn’t seem like much, consider that 2013-14 saw the largest recent outbreak of Salmonella caused by raw poultry, traced back to chicken produced by the California company Foster Farms. That outbreak generated an enormous public health response, months of media coverage, and lawsuits. It caused 634 known cases. Over the same time period, backyard poultry sickened 877. Yet those illnesses seem to still be flying (sorry) under the radar.

“If you ask someone, ‘Can you get Salmonella from eating undercooked poultry?’ they are absolutely going to say Yes,” Megin Nichols, a public health veterinarian in the CDC’s foodborne outbreak response and prevention branch, told me. “But if you ask them, ‘Can you get Salmonella from touching your backyard chicken?’ they don’t necessarily know that.”

How Salmonella outbreaks linked to backyard chicken have risen since the 1990s, based on CDC data.
How Salmonella outbreaks linked to backyard chicken have risen since the 1990s, based on CDC data.
Original from Behravesh et al., Clinical Infectious Diseases, May 2014

Some of that disconnect may be cognitive dissonance. People buy backyard chickens to opt out of an industrial food system they perceive as unhealthy—so it takes some mental gymnastics to confront that the birds providing homegrown eggs (and sometimes meat) might be hazardous too. But, Nichols said, it might also be lack of awareness—that Salmonella, which resides in chickens’ guts even when birds look  healthy, and exits their bodies in their droppings, can spread all over them as they perch and take dust baths and preen.

“On their feet, on their feathers, on their beaks,” Nichols said. “And in the areas where they live and roam. So people are exposed when they clean the coop or otherwise maintain the poultry environment. But we also see people, especially young children, cuddling and snuggling them and kissing them.”

Finally, add in that most people don’t know Salmonella, along with other foodborne illnesses, doesn’t only cause a few days or weeks of lying flat and sticking close to the bathroom. An increasingly solid body of research links it to lifelong illnesses from arthritis to digestive problems to circulatory damage that leads to high blood pressure, kidney failure and stroke.

Casey Barton Behravesh, a veterinarian with a public health doctorate who directs the CDC’s “One Health” office, said this is a new problem. Exposure to live poultry used to be rare, and pretty predictable: It occurred when children were given fuzzy newborn chicks in Easter baskets. “Then in the early 2000s, we noticed a growing trend of more and more outbreaks occurring, not linked to little chicks and ducklings, and not among kids getting sick,” she told me. “It was adults getting sick, people who reported having backyard flocks, which was something we had never seen before.”

Educational material on backyard-poultry disease outbreaks.
Educational material on backyard-poultry disease outbreaks.
Image courtesy the CDC; original here.

People are being made ill because they don’t recognize they are at risk—but the structure of the industry, and the systems set up to monitor it, aren’t helping. The federal program that surveys diseases in live chickens, the USDA’s National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) was set up to protect chicken health, not human health. So it tracks Salmonella strains that make chickens sick, but not the ones that cause human outbreaks, and until recently, it focused on the vast commercial poultry trade where those strains would cause costly damage.

Denise Brinson, a veterinarian who is the NPIP’s director, told me that because of the backyard-associated outbreaks, the agency has worked with the CDC to create a program addressing small suppliers. In 2014, it began allowing hatcheries that supply the backyard trade—which sell birds to feed stores and hardware stores, as well as direct to consumers—to join a testing program scaled to the size of their businesses and to advertise that they have NPIP certification.

But to look for that, would-be poultry buyers have to know where the birds are coming from, and that turns out to be more difficult than it should be. Federal investigators including Behravesh documented in 2012 and 2014 that the process of getting chickens to market isn’t a supply chain, it’s a tangle. Birds come from 20 different hatcheries in the US, but many of those hatcheries have contract farmers doing the daily work, and then combine those clutches to make up the millions of birds they ship each year. Because some hatcheries specialize in only certain breeds, they also may “drop-ship”—buy and ship birds from other hatcheries—to make up orders as well.

And at the sales end, birds from different farms and hatcheries may be commingled in the same store pen—increasing the possibility that Salmonella can spread among them, and making traceback to the birds’ origin an extraordinarily difficult task.

All of which means the onus is on individuals to protect themselves: owners of live poultry in backyard or schools, people who visit those owners, even people who handle baby chicks in the stores where they are sold. The CDC’s advice is to keep separate clothes and shoes to wear for feeding birds and cleaning their coops; make sure anyone who touches the birds or their area washes their hands right away; and remember that, no matter how adorable they are, backyard poultry are a food source, not a pet. Despite the temptation, they shouldn’t be smooched or snuggled—especially not by young children, whose immature immune systems put them at greater risk of infection.

“We do think that raising backyard poultry can be a fun and educational experience,” Nichols said. “But it is not the right experience for everyone.”

9 thoughts on “The Fuzzy Fluffy Super-Cute Health Threat In Your Backyard

  1. The “epidemic” involved 324 cases over 35 states. Epidemic? 324 cases? In Colorado alone there are almost 4,500 FAMILIES on one online group devoted to keeping chickens. This doesn’t sound like an epidemic, it sounds like an industry-friendly scare tactic.

    The Colorado group always advises its members to wash their hands after contact with chickens – despite the fact that this is basic common sense. I am more afraid of being limited to the unhealthy eggs I used to eat from industrially raised chickens, which are rife with antibiotics and prone to disease. Please be balanced in your reporting. Fear could send us back to the days when big business was our only option!

    MM: There have been 75 posts in this blog since it launched, and at least a third of them examine antibiotic resistance and other health problems emanating from industrial conventional agriculture. That’s in addition to more at our sister blog The Plate, and yet more at my previous blog at Wired. So I’m not worried about my balance. Thank you for your comment.

  2. This just makes me flat out angry. I have a small chicken farm and I test for EVERYTHING. Just as you wouldn’t adopt a puppy and skip the trip to the vet, it makes sense to at least swab your birds and have it analyzed by your local state extension office to make sure that it doesn’t have salmonella.

    This is a very simple procedure, yet instead of simply recommending that poultry keepers test their birds you stress the danger. Salmonella doesn’t have to be an issue. And despite the ending sentence that it can be a fun experience, the other half dozen paragraphs would lead me to believe that National Geographic doesn’t understand half of what is entailed in poultry keeping.

    This is a rewarding experience, and people do need to know the whole story of their food. Part of that is knowing about EVERY aspect of how its produced and brought to market, not being bamboozled into thinking it’s too dangerous or hard for the everyday person to do.

    Shame on you.

    MM: I wasn’t aware that asking people to wash their hands is “too dangerous or hard.” Thank you for your comment.

  3. Chicks are only cute for about a week or two after they’re hatched… then they start growing feathers, and pecking at you…

  4. Wash your hands people..it all comes down to common sense and realizing that even ‘healthy looking’ poultry can – and do – carry disease. Just like you wash your hands after cleaning the kitty litter box or petting animals at a petting zoo, wash your hands after handling your chickens. Don’t kiss your chickens, any more than you shouldn’t kiss your pet dog, but handling them and snuggling with them are fine.

    I do agree that more caution needs to be taken, but I disagree with the statement that backyard chickens and ducks are a food source, not pets. Ours are most definitely our pets – and have been for nearly 8 gloriously salmonella-free years. However, I do have dedicated chicken coop footwear, wash my hands, rinse our eggs before using them, and don’t allow our chickens and ducks into the house.

    Fresh Eggs Daily

  5. The statement that “Exposure to live poultry used to be rare” is an error. Poultry in the yard used to be common in rural areas and smaller towns when I was a child, and according to my mother, was common even in urban areas during WWII. Chickens were unusual in more affluent suburbs but once “across the tracks” chickens were far more common. At least 2/3 of the population where I grew up (in towns or on the many farms) had daily contact with chickens. Polio was our greatest fear (the Salk vaccine was tested in our area; we had polio outbreaks every summer before that), not salmonella. But then, the poultry business hadn’t consolidated nearly as much in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Backyard poultry existed, however, even in the larger cities where a little space and low incomes made it both possible and attractive, long before the current interest in home-grown food. We kept chickens in San Antonio in the mid-1970s and so did neighbors (along with ducks and geese in some yards, and rabbits in others.) The small town where I live now has had chickens in yards (and running around the streets, for that matter) since it was founded, and the only animal actually prohibited is swine.

    It would be more helpful to offer guidelines for those interested in keeping a few chickens–for instance, how to find local small breeders, how to set up an easily maintained chicken house and run, how to collect and store eggs, etc–than to emphasize the dangers. Those guidelines need to be practical for the family situation, not ideals more suited to ag businesses.

    MM: Thank you for your comment; I am a huge fan of your books. Indeed it would have been appropriate to time-limit the assertion of “rare.” From my conversations with the CDC I doubt they were thinking of the post-World War II, pre-poultry consolidation years, and were focusing instead on immediately pre-the rise of urban chicken-keeping. (As with the timeline of the fever chart mid-post.) We have had more discussion of alternatives to conventional poultry raising, including small-flock economics and open-source genetics, at our sister blog The Plate, but those would be outside the scope of this vertical.

  6. I couldn’t say it much better than Elizabeth Moon, the previous poster, has. Discouraging backyard poultry is a disservice. Encouraging proper husbandry and hygiene is a great idea. We have chickens at the farm we rent space at, and ducks and chickens at home. We have never become I’ll from our birds. We do wash our hands after coming in contact and process, store, and cook meat hygienically. We gather eggs, follow advice not to wash them unless absolutely necessary (washed eggs allow bacteria and pathogens to enter through the shell) and store them properly (the US washed commercial eggs, so they have to be refrigerated; farm fresh, unwashed eggs do not need refrigeration). Education, not fear mongering, is key.

  7. Thank-You—- Elizabeth Moon…. I only have an acre…. Area where chickens free range is about 1/4…. Eight hens and 2 ducks one male one female…. Is there any testing that could be done on birds to verify they do not have salmonella?

  8. The elephant in the room.
    You do not mention is issue of antibiotic-laced feeds, which are thought to be at the heart of the salmonella and e-coli transmission cycle in the food we eat.
    Chickens carry salmonella in their guts because other less harmful bacteria have been eliminated after they and their parents have been fed antibiotic supplemented foods.
    Eliminate the practice of supplementing animal feed with antibiotics and perhaps the source of the problem can be controlled

    MM: As I’ve written in probably more than 100 articles at this point. But these chicks are not being raised in the commercial-intensive system that is mass-dosing with antibiotics. Resistant salmonella on meat from commercial chickens and salmonella on the exterior of backyard chickens is a both-and problem, not either-or.

  9. It would be more helpful to offer guidelines for those interested in keeping a few chickens–for instance, how to find local small breeders, how to set up an easily maintained chicken house and run, how to collect and store eggs, etc–than to emphasize the dangers. Those guidelines need to be practical for the family situation, not ideals more suited to ag businesses

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