Backyard chickens fuel salmonella rise

Study links 1,100 U.S. cases so far this year

Posted: October 29, 2017 at 1:53 a.m.

Chickens perch in a barn at the Hanna Family Ranch in Bentonville on Thursday.

Salmonella infections linked to handling live poultry have risen to record levels this year, and oddly, they didn't come from poultry plants, slaughterhouses or commercial barns.

They came from backyard chickens.

The trending hobby of owning and raising small flocks for homegrown eggs or pets continues to rise. As a result, more people are touching live chickens and ducks without knowing the inherent risks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A study published Oct. 19 says there have been more than 1,100 salmonella cases linked to backyard poultry in 48 states so far this year, with 249 reported hospitalizations, and one fatality.

This is the largest number of illnesses linked to contact with backyard poultry ever recorded by the CDC. It's a 23 percent increase compared with last year, which had 895 infection cases and three fatalities. Only a portion of salmonella infections are diagnosed and reported each year, meaning more infections likely occurred -- and will continue to do so.

Andy Schneider -- aka "The Chicken Whisperer" -- a self-described liaison between backyard growers and the chicken industry, said when disease outbreaks happen, everyone likes to point fingers.

"Simply, we all just need to do better."

In Plain Sight

This year, 10 multistate outbreaks have been linked to backyard poultry from multiple hatcheries. These don't include commercial hatcheries such as Tyson Foods or Simmons Foods, which grow broilers and layers for the food industry.

According to the CDC, about 542 people said they felt symptoms such as nausea, fever, cramps, or diarrhea the week after handling live poultry. Salmonella can inhabit poultry without showing any signs and spread from poultry droppings to the surrounding area.

This year California saw the most infections with 61 reported cases, followed by Florida and Virginia with 60 cases each. But Virginia had the highest infection rate of roughly 7 cases per million people.

In comparison Georgia and Arkansas saw relatively low case numbers, with 18 and 9, respectively.

According to the Arkansas Department of Health -- which sends all salmonella reports to the CDC -- cases were dispersed throughout the state: with one in the southeast region; three in the northwest region; and four in the northeast region. One case was a duplicate, for a total of 8 cases in Arkansas for 2017. Five of those cases happened between July and August.

Gary Wheeler, chief medical officer at the Arkansas Department of Health, said recent improvements in technology that help identify salmonella strains more efficiently and the public's increasing interest in locally grown and produced food have led to a rise in reported salmonella cases.

They almost quadrupled this year, compared with 2015 reports. However, Arkansas' annual reports linked to backyard poultry haven't risen above 10 over the last five years.

Dana Smith, Facebook administrator of the Fayetteville League of Chicken Keepers (FLOCK), has two hens that stay in her backyard coop, when they're not strutting on grass. The Facebook group, used as a resource for backyard growers, gained popularity as local legislation loosened to allow residents to keep more chickens within Fayetteville city limits.

In the years she has cared for poultry, Smith said she didn't know anyone that would have had a salmonella problem. But the likelihood is there, she said.

"My understanding is that it happens when someone is treating them like pets, instead of chickens," Smith said. "Bringing them in the house, hugging them."

But backyard growers don't carry all the responsibility for these types of salmonella outbreaks. Schneider said the day-old-chick suppliers and hatcheries are just as responsible, if not more.

Tight Spaces

Will Hanna, 67, of Bentonville, lets his chickens roam and lay as they please on his 35-acre plot. Hanna and his wife, Waltina, raise pigs and sheep for restaurants in the area. The eggs they keep for themselves and friends. In the four years he has had laying hens, Hanna said, salmonella has never been a problem.

"I think my disease issues are minimal because they have all this space," he said while feeding his flock.

Twenty of Hanna's hens were bought from a nearby supplier in Cave Springs. Different breeds of day-old chicks can be bought from suppliers such as Tractor Supply Co., Atwood's, and local farmers cooperatives and hardware stores.

And likely, those suppliers get their chicks from the same places.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are 20 core hatcheries that produce 50 million chicks annually.

One mail-order hatchery in Ohio, Mt. Healthy Hatcheries, was linked to several salmonella outbreaks from 2012 to 2014.

To reduce the likelihood of future outbreaks, the CDC recommended suppliers and hatcheries follow guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, last updated in 2014, and enroll in the National Poultry Improvement Plan, established in 2010.

In spite of high case numbers, this year no hatcheries were singled out. But even if the cases led to specific hatcheries being disclosed, Schneider said it wouldn't change people's behavior around chickens.

"You'd still have the same people huggin' and kissin' their chickens."

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