Exposure to salmonella from live poultry can be prevented if producers take the necessary precautions, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service specialist Craig Coufal.
The popularity of backyard poultry flocks has increased over the last several years, but recent outbreaks of salmonella highlight the need for public education about the risks to small producers, said Coufal, an AgriLife Extension poultry specialist in College Station, Texas.
In late July, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reported 611 cases of salmonella infections, including one death and 138 hospitalizations. According to CDC, 32% of those cases were in children five years old or younger.
Epidemiologic, traceback and laboratory findings linked the outbreaks to contact with live poultry, such as chicks and ducklings, from multiple hatcheries and affected backyard flocks, according to CDC.
Most chickens carry some form of the more than 2,000 types of salmonella, Coufal said. It's a naturally occurring part of their microbial flora. Birds are carriers, so they typically don't show signs of the bacteria.
Despite the presence of salmonella on poultry, residents with backyard flocks for egg and meat production can greatly reduce the probability of infection by taking precautions, Coufal said. Petting or holding live birds, handling eggs or working in areas frequented by birds, such as the coop, can expose people to salmonella.
In most cases, soap and warm water is the solution, Coufal said.
“It's really a hygiene issue,” he said. “Anytime you're in contact with live birds or eggs, there's a chance for transmission of salmonella. The key is to wash your hands and take precautions to prevent cross-contamination to your mouth, the kitchen or food.”
Coufal said the high percentage of young children exposed to salmonella during the outbreak highlights how the bacteria can be spread.
“Kids love to play with baby chicks and ducklings,” he said. “If they then put their fingers in their mouths or touch food without washing their hands, they are putting the bacteria directly into their system, thus possibly resulting in illness.”
Backyard producers can also protect flocks from exposure to salmonella and other bacteria and viruses by practicing good biosecurity, Coufal said.
Producers shouldn't share equipment or materials with other producers, he said. If it is necessary to share equipment, such as a coop, it should be cleaned thoroughly with a bleach-based cleaner.
Simply visiting a neighbor's backyard production area could lead to exposure of pathogens if precautions are not taken to prevent transmission, such as changing shoes or clothes.
Coufal also recommends that backyard producers purchase their chicks, ducklings and other fowl from reputable sources. “When you buy birds at a flea market or in the want ads, you really don't know where they are coming from,” he said. “There are no assurances of testing for diseases or the health status of the bird.”
Coufal suggested purchasing birds from hatcheries or breeders that have certification through the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP). NPIP certification ensures that birds are from healthy breeder flocks that have been tested for severe diseases. However, NPIP certification does not guarantee that birds are completely free of salmonella.
“There is nothing wrong with having a backyard flock, but people do need to be aware of the potential health risks and the ways to avoid cross-contamination from occurring,” Coufal said.