The backyard Salmonella threat spreading across America

More and more city dwellers and urban farmers have taken to raising chickens in their backyards. The trend has really picked up speed over the last couple of years, in large part because people want to have more control over the food they eat. The GMO wars, overuse of dangerous pesticides, growing use of antibiotics in livestock and the desire to be self-sufficient are just some of the reasons at-home farming and animal husbandry has become widespread.

But raising animals for food is something most of us have very little knowledge and experience with. And no matter how cute, sweet or entertaining farm critters can be in your back yard, you shouldn’t always interact with them in the same way you would the family dog — or cat for that matter.

And why not, you ask? Don’t chicks deserve love too? Well, probably. But if you’re not careful, showing poultry love contributes to an increase in food poisoning caused by Salmonella. And that’s what happens when people treat their backyard chickens as pets.

Rule #1: Don’t kiss the chickens

It’s no joke. Physical contact with pet poultry can make you seriously ill.

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that more than 180 cases of Salmonella in 40 states can be traced to pet chickens.

With the growing popularity of raising chickens and ducks for food and eggs, more people are now letting the birds into their houses and having close physical contact with the animals. And that’s a real problem.

If you are tempted to get up close and personal with a chicken, cuddling and kissing it as you might a puppy, heed the warning from the CDC: “These behaviors increase a person’s risk of a Salmonella infection.”

If you keep chickens or other birds, the CDC advises:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water after contact with the birds or any items in the areas where the birds spend time.
  • Don’t let the birds into your house. (This seems like a no-brainer to me. But, then, I’ve never been tempted to kiss a chicken.)
  • Don’t let children younger than 5 years, adults older than 65, and people with weakened immune systems handle or touch chicks, ducklings, or other live poultry. These people are more liable to develop severe illness from Salmonella.
  • Never kiss or snuggle with the birds. Do not touch your mouth, drink or eat around live birds.

Chicken whisperer, Patricia Foreman, author of the book City Chicks, and host of a daily talk-radio program, Backyard Poultry with the Chicken Whisperer, offers advice that seems to concur with the CDC. She says, “We need to treat chicks and poultry like livestock rather than pets. Don’t let kids cuddle them, and don’t keep them inside.”

Rule #2: Wash up and cook well

You can still be at risk for Salmonella without coming in direct contact with farm animals like chickens. In fact most of us are more likely to eat something that’s contaminated with the bacteria. The CDC’s general advice about avoiding Salmonella from food includes:

  • Always cook poultry, ground beef, and eggs thoroughly. Don’t consume foods that include raw meat or raw eggs.
  • If a restaurant gives you undercooked eggs, poultry or meat, send it back to be cooked more thoroughly.
  • After contact with raw meat or poultry always wash your hands, kitchen counter tops and utensils with soap and hot water immediately.
  • Be very cautious with foods that are served to infants, the elderly and anyone who has a compromised immune system.

While raising chickens in your own back yard may seem like a good idea at first (who wouldn’t appreciate free eggs?), to do it properly and safely is not cheap. In a recent article in Forbes, a backyard farmer from Merced, California calculated that after building the coop, buying the feed, paying the vet, spending countless hours maintaining the coop and administering care to his chicks, his eggs were costing him about $40 a dozen. Don’t forget the doctor visits if you and the family end up with Salmonella after cuddling the chicks.

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Carl Lowe

By Carl Lowe

has written about health, fitness and nutrition for a wide range of publications including Prevention Magazine, Self Magazine and Time-Life Books. The author of more than a dozen books, he has been gluten-free since 2007.