IN NATURE, ONE OF THE first things that newly hatched chicks eat is their mothers' feces. Fecal bacteria thrive in the chicks' intestines, keeping more harmful organisms from taking hold. Thus, by separating about-to-hatch eggs from their layer hens, modern poultry production makes the chicks more susceptible to salmonella and campylobacter, which cause diseases in humans. In Europe, as a result, many chicks are fed a substance derived from excrement.
U.S. Agriculture Dept. researchers Norman J. Stern, J. Stanley Bailey, and Nelson A. Cox Jr. say they have developed an approach that is more focused and efficient: They feed chicks only the kinds of bacteria that compete with salmonella and campylobacter. The bacteria come from secretions along a chicken intestine's lining. The bacteria are collected from slaughtered chickens, cultured, and mixed with water that is then sprayed on chicks and given as drinking water.
In tests conducted at Continental Grain Co., a New York-based poultry producer, the Agriculture team's technique reduced the incidence of salmonella in chicken carcasses to less than 10% vs. 35% in a control group. So far, it's less effective against campylobacter.
Continental Grain has licensed the USDA patent and is seeking Food & Drug Administration approval to use the method commercially.