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Keep Backyard Flocks Salmonella-free

Precautionary steps on your urban farm can keep your chickens and eggs safe from salmonella.

By Rebecca Mumaw

September 3, 2010

Backyard chickens

Courtesy Stock.XCHANG/ Robert Mich

Keep your backyard flock free from salmonella by taking biosecurity precautions.

The caged chicken versus free-range chicken debate seems to rage on even in light of the more than 500 million eggs recalled in recent weeks.

Most in the egg industry still insist that raising hens in battery cages is actually better for the hen and the safety of the egg. Just this year, the United Egg Producers, a leading U.S. egg industry trade group announced that caging hens is better for food safety.

The U.K. egg industry takes the completely opposite stance. In the past five years, nine studies have been completed throughout the U.K., all of which indicate that egg operations with caged hens have higher incidences of salmonella. These studies were so convincing that the U.K. has enacted legislation making it illegal to cage hens anywhere in the U.K. beginning in 2012.

Even though U.S. studies seem to contradict those in the U.K., the U.S. stance that caged eggs are safe is starting to crack. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed state legislation to ban caged hens by 2015, and many food sellers, such as Wal-Mart, Safeway, Burger King, Wendy’s and Subway, have committed to decrease the number of caged-hen eggs purchased.

Do I have to worry about salmonella in my backyard flock?

Does this let the backyard farmer who free-ranges hens off the hook? Not hardly. All the studies in the U.S. and the U.K. found many other influences that increased the incidence of salmonella besides keeping the birds in cages. Darrell Trampel, DVM, a veterinarian and poultry expert at Iowa State University, says there are recorded cases of salmonella in all sizes and types of flocks, including those that are raised organically and free-range. It’s important, even in the backyard flock, to protect your family by taking steps to reduce your chances of salmonella infection.

Backyard Biosecurity

Salmonella is transmitted among chickens through contact with fecal matter from infected birds or other animals. It’s often carried from flock to flock on the clothes and shoes of backyard visitors and the people who care for the chickens. It’s important to restrict visitors to your backyards flock to limit the chickens’ potential for exposure. Coop walks are a great way to raise funds for local poultry groups, but they also put your chickens at risk for salmonella and other chicken diseases. If you participate in a walk where a lot of people will be in contact with your chickens or equipment, prevent chicken diseases by taking biosecurity measures, such as using disinfectant foot baths and restricting visitor contact with your flock. 

Rodent Control

Salmonella is usually spread by mice and other rodents. It’s important to keep the chicken feed in a sealed container. If hens feed outside, bring food in at night and store it in rodent-proof areas. Keep the coops in good condition and well-ventilated with tight construction to prevent mice from entering. Also eliminate weeds and piled debris that attract rodents in the chicken yard.

Clean Coops

Remove manure and damp litter as it accumulates in the coop. Clean waterers weekly and feeders regularly. Hang the feeders and waters high enough to prevent the chickens from defecating or digging dirt into the containers. Clean and disinfect any used equipment immediately upon purchase, even if you aren’t going to use it for a while.

Vaccinate Your Flock

In the U.S., vaccines are sold in doses of thousands to accommodate the factory farm, which can make it tough for the small-flock farmer. Bud Wood, from Murray McMurray Hatchery, talks about the dilemma facing the small poultry farmer.

“To be fully covered for salmonella, the birds need to be vaccinated multiple times. We could vaccinate them once here at the hatchery, but the customer would need to vaccinate them again twice more,” he says. “The biggest problem is we can only get the vaccine in 5,000- or 10,000-dose units, and it needs to be used within hours of opening.”

Watch for updates in this area, and encourage veterinarians and legislators to make small quantities of the salmonella vaccine available to urban farmers.

Good Egg Hygiene

According to Gail Damerow, author of Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, the first line of defense in keeping eggs safe to eat is to keep nests clean and lined with fresh litter. Eggs should be collected often and stored immediately after collection at 45 degrees F. Eggs that are seriously soiled, cracked or leaking should be discarded.

To be completely safe, eggs should be completely cooked with a solid yolk and firm white. For more information about egg handling, visit the Egg Safety Center and FoodSafety.gov websites.

Give us your opinion on Keep Backyard Flocks Salmonella-free.
Submit Comment »
Immunizing chickens against salmonella does NOT raise the amount of salmonella in the flock as some here have stated. Immunization triggers the birds' immune systems to kill the salmonella bacteria when the immune system encounters it.

There are many myths about free ranging, organic feed, and many other things preventing diseases such as salmonella and Marek's - but in reality they have no preventive effect whatsoever.

The change in the UK salmonella infection rate is a result of immunization, not free range practices. This article fails to note that in the UK, as in the US, most laying hens have been confined for decades. This is the same fallacious argument that is used to "prove" that raw milk is safer than pasteurized milk.
Nadja, Newark, CA
Posted: 7/22/2014 1:02:34 AM
Good to know
Annie, Houston, TX
Posted: 7/18/2012 1:45:47 PM
My eggs are cooked with soft yolk otherwise the best nutrients are killed. I think having my own chickens is the best. I love em.
Melinda, Garden Grove, CA
Posted: 9/13/2010 9:33:51 AM
The rule of thumb when raising any birds is that they have salmonella. Their meat and eggs have some level of this pesky bacteria, no matter how careful you are. Vaccinations are available are available but not necessarily recommended or wise. If the bird has little or no of the bacteria and you vaccinate, you just increase the level of salmonella in that birds system. The bird may be immune but the added bacteria is shed in the feces. In case you didn't know, eggs come out of the same hole as the feces.
The issue that occurred in Iowa is the feed the birds ate was contaminated with Rat/Mouse feces. This is a hard problem to avoid as rodents love poultry feed. The salmonella in the feed was passed to the birds and then eventually made its way into/onto the eggs. This extra amount of bacteria (as I said its already there) increased the concentration of bacteria to an infectious dose. If you cook your eggs all the way through, sunny side up, not over easy and not runny you will not have an issue. Why? The heat kills the bacteria. Its the same case as with hamburger meat. It could be worthy of a recall but if you cook it all the way through you will not get sick from it, the bacteria is dead. Whenever someone gets sick from burgers or eggs, it is because someone didn't cook it right. People need to learn to how to cook their food properly and not blame the food producer's for every time they get sick. I'm not agreeing with what the egg farmer's in Iowa did (their animal husbandry efforts give a bad name to farmers) but I don't believe they should be sued by indiviuals b/c they got sick from the eggs. You were eating salmonella up until this point and didn't get sick so quit complaining.
Joe, Letts, IA
Posted: 9/13/2010 6:47:20 AM

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