Mail-Order Chickens Trigger Salmonella Outbreak, CDC Says

The urban chicken movement has unleashed an unwanted development: salmonella poisoning.

Baby chickens from a mail-order hatchery that supplies backyard flocks sickened at least 316 people in 43 states over eight years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a report in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The poultry were contaminated with salmonella, which is linked to about 1 million illnesses, 19,000 hospitalizations and 370 deaths yearly int the U.S. Health officials are concerned as the mail-order hatching industry reported record sales “due to increased interest in raising backyard flocks and urban chickens,” in the first half of 2009, the CDC's researchers wrote.

“Consumers are often unaware of the risk” of salmonella from live poultry, the investigators wrote.

The outbreak lasted from 2004 through 2011, and cases were probably higher than the laboratory-confirmed number published, the researchers said. Those sickened ranged in age from 1 month to 86 years, according to the report.

Chickens can carry salmonella in their intestines and shed the bacteria in their droppings. The bug can spread across the bird when the animal cleans itself, as well as through the bird’s environment. It’s possible to accidentally ingest salmonella and become ill by eating or touching one’s mouth after touching chickens, according to the Atlanta-based CDC.

Diarrhea, Fever

Symptoms of salmonella infection include diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps as soon as 12 hours after exposure, and lasting 4 to 7 days, according to the CDC. Most people don’t need treatment, though for some, the infection can spread from the intestines to other parts of the body and cause death. The very old, the very young, and people with compromised immune systems are likeliest to be severely ill.

Infected birds may look healthy. There’s no good way to determine which chicks are sick at any given time, according to the CDC.

“While urban/backyard poultry may help teach people about agriculture, biosecurity and the threat of poultry disease is a major concern,” Gwen Venable, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, which represents the commercial poultry industry, said in an e-mail. Backyard chickens have greater exposure to wild animals and birds, and thus may be more disease-prone, she said.

Cleanup Required

The CDC report didn’t name the hatchery, though it noted the hatchery produces and ships about 4 million birds annually. After receiving recommendations from experts, the owners of the hatchery replaced and updated equipment, cleaned the eggs and improved biosecurity, the agency said. A veterinary consultant also visited the hatchery, to suggest additional improvements.

People raising their own chickens should wash their hands frequently and encourage this behavior in their children as well, the authors of the report wrote. Live poultry shouldn’t be allowed in homes or anywhere near food or drink. The CDC report also recommended banning practices that market chicks to children, such as dyeing them, since half the illnesses were in children ages 5 and younger.

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