I have just become aware of a study from the New England Journal of Medicine that has traced 316 confirmed illnesses in 43 states to a mail order chick supplier. This hatchery supplied backyard flocks across the US. The NEJM estimated that there were thousands of unreported illnesses in the same outbreak. The illnesses were caused by the same strain of Salmonella montevideo. The article goes on to describe the interesting methods that the investigators used to discover the cause and course of the disease (think CSI, but in an agricultural setting….and with less attractive investigators, most likely). The story was interesting, but the bottom line is that a bunch of people got seriously ill from their day old chicks.
It is easy to forget that the cute balls of fluff can harbour seriously nasty bacteria. Salmonella are a common inhabitant of chicken’s intestines, and every egg and every chick has the potential to make you….or your kids….or your neighbours sick.
I am not an alarmist. It is rare that chickens are a source of illness. Your Barred Rocks or Araucana or Black Copper Marin is not a ticking time bomb. However, you do need to be realistic and realize that your chickens and eggs are a potential risk. Professional egg producers spend a WHOLE lot of time and money maintaining food safety programs and hygiene. Backyarders need to keep a similar priority when handling their chickens and eggs.
The general rules are easy, and intuitive. Keep manure and eggs separate. Wash your hands each time you handle your hens. If you wash your eggs, rinse them in running water, and don’t use hot water (it will cause the egg to expand, and when it contracts again, it can draw bacteria into the interior of the egg, where the bacteria can grow at an exponential rate). Keep manure out of your house (shoes dedicated to the coop and kept by the back door are a good, simple way to separate dirty and clean areas). Don’t allow your chickens free roam of your house…especially your kitchen….chickens will often have manure on their feet, or will inconsiderately leave droppings anywhere (and everywhere).
Remember….the major source of dangerous bacteria is manure. The major vehicle by which it gets to your body is your hands. Do what you can to break the connection between these things. It is best if you develop some kinds of routines that you follow to maintain cleanliness in your eggs and house. It is worth reducing the risk to yourself and your loved ones.
Mike the Chicken Vet