Don’t worry- I’m not going to get all political on you. I’m just able to sit here and write this morning because I am on furlough. The week has actually been really nice. Lots of time to reflect, cook healthy meals for myself and Robby, and spend quality time with the dogs and chickens outside. Weather-wise, I couldn’t have picked a better week myself to be forced to stay home: lows in the 60s and highs around 80 in Atlanta. The A/C is off, the windows are open, and a gentle breeze is floating constantly through the house. Thank goodness we got most of our windows restored last year.
Since I’ve been home, and spending so much time with the chickens, I’ve been thinking about the constantly rising popularity of backyard flocks, and the associated public health concern of Salmonellosis. There’s a lot of information out there on this topic, some of it good, and some of it just mis-informed. If I haven’t mentioned it before, I’m a microbiologist at the CDC (a non-essential one, at that!). I do surveillance work on antimicrobial resistance in foodborne-associated bacteria, including Salmonella. Having been to a seminar recently on the topic of Salmonella outbreaks associated purely with backyard flocks, I thought I might share a few tidbits with you. The CDC website has some interesting statistical information as well.
It’s not possible to know if your chickens carry Salmonella. It’s very common, and doesn’t harm the chickens, so you typically won’t see any outward signs if your chickens have this bacteria in their intestinal tract. It’s a normal part of a chicken’s flora. Some hatcheries vaccinate their flocks against a few harmful strains of Salmonella. In order to protect yourself and anyone that’s around your flock from an accidental infection, observe universal safety precautions by treating your chickens as though they do carry Salmonella. Wash your hands after collecting eggs or maintaining anything with the flock’s area (food, water, egg box, coop, perches, etc.).
Remember that chickens are not pets, they are farm animals. Avoid kissing or nuzzling them like a pet, and supervise children that are around your chickens. Chickens poop on the ground in their coops, and then they take dirt baths, so they can have fecal bacteria on them in places other than their cute little butts. One of the top ways that children under 5 contract Salmonella is from nuzzling animals like chickens (and turtles) that poop relentlessly. Kids are contstantly touching their own faces and putting things in their mouth. You can put two and two together.
Wash your eggs and refrigerate them. There’s alot of debate on this, but I favor playing it safe and observing universal precautions. I’m always thinking about bacteria… I just can’t help it. It’s not that I’m paranoid or OCD or anything else, it’s just that there are alot of harmful bacteria out there that I don’t want invading my body. Here’s the thing: chicken biology is really simple, and their eggs come out of the same opening as their poop (the cloaca). There are traces of poop on the eggshells that you can sometimes see with your own eyes. You wouldn’t knowingly put vegetables with poop on them in your refrigerator (would you?), so why would you put unwashed eggs in your refrigerator along with all the other food you’re going to eat? Wash off the poopy bacteria, even if you can’t see any poop. There are some strains of Salmonella circulating that are really resistant to antibiotics, and can make you miserably sick if you get infected. The bacteria we’re dealing with today are not the same as what your grandparents had on their farms. They have different phenotypes and so many are not susceptible to the same drugs if you do get sick. Why not play it safe? Even if you cook your eggs thoroughly, you can still infect yourself by touching other things in your kitchen or house after touching poopy eggshells.
Pick your mail-order hatchery carefully. Many of the drug-resistant Salmonella infections have been linked to mail-order hatcheries, the companies that ship you baby chicks right after they hatch. Do some research before you order, and remember that the more chicks you order, the closer their quarters are while they’re being delivered to you, which equals cross-contamination opportunity.
These were all take-away points from the seminar I attended, and points that I agree with as a microbiologist and a chicken keeper. Keeping a backyard flock is a perfectly safe hobby as long as you’re smart about it. We plan to keep chickens as long as we have the yard for it, and I hope the trend continues.
Thanks for reading!