When someone says 'Salmonella' you most likely immediately think uncooked eggs or poultry, and you would be right (although it can be contracted from eating contaminated produce as well). Salmonella IS most often contracted from un- or under-cooked poultry products, and in fact it is estimated that 1 in 20,000 eggs contain Salmonella. So should you be concerned about salmonella in your backyard flock? Well, let's take a look at what Salmonella is, how it is contracted and if it can be prevented.
What is it? Skipping all the technical mumbo-jumbo, Salmonella (or Salmonellosis) is a bacterial disease affecting the intestinal tract of humans, chickens and other birds and mammals. It is the same bacteria that causes typhoid fever.
What are the symptoms? Symptoms in humans include cramps, diarrhea, nausea, chills, fever and/or headaches. The symptoms generally appear within 6-72 hours of eating contaminated food and can last up to a week. Generally not fatal in healthy adults who often recover without seeing a doctor, salmonella can result in death in the elderly, sick, those with compromised immune systems, pregnant women and children if it is not treated with antibiotics and if it moves through the blood stream and to other organs in the body.
Symptoms in chickens include weak and lethargic birds, loose yellow or green droppings, purplish combs and wattles, a drop in egg production, increased thirst, decreased feed consumption and weight loss. It can be deadly in hens if not treated.
How is it spread? Fortunately not an airborne disease, the bacteria is usually spread to chickens through rat or mouse droppings in water, feed, damp soil or bedding/litter. [Read how to keep your coop rodent-free here] It is also passed down through the egg to chicks by mother hens who are infected.
The Salmonella can then be transmitted to humans who eat improperly cooked meat or eggs from infected birds or by putting their hands in their mouth after touching chickens or eggs that have come in contact with contaminated rodent or chicken feces. Children under five years old make up a large number of Salmonella cases, most likely from hand to mouth transmission of the bacteria.
How is it prevented? Good personal hygiene as well as keeping a clean chicken coop and run are the best ways to prevent salmonella. Backyard biosecurity is critical [Read more here]. Cooking destroys the bacteria, so be sure to cook eggs properly before eating if you are concerned.
Here are some other tips to preventing the spread of salmonella:
- Buy chicks from reputable sources to lessen the chances they have the disease
- Always wash your hands in warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds after handling chicks, hens or eggs
- Teach children not to put their hands in their mouths, especially when around the chickens
- Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer after being around your chickens
- Discard cracked or extremely dirty eggs
- Don't wash eggs when you collect them. Allow the natural 'bloom' to protect the inside of the egg from bacteria entering [Read more here about egg handling]
- Keep your flock's immune systems strong and your hens as healthy as possible
- Rinse eggs in warm water just prior to cooking them
- Cook eggs to at least 160 degrees so the whites are firm
- Cook poultry to at least 165 degrees so no pink remains and juices run clear
- Keep raw poultry separate from other foods and consider using a cutting board dedicated only to poultry
- Use paper towels to clean kitchen surfaces instead of sponges or dishcloths
What do I do if I think my flock is infected? An avian lab or vet can test your flock for Salmonella and then treatment with antibiotics is one course you can take. But instead give Sage a try. Recent studies have shown that the culinary herb Sage is reported to combat salmonella. Fresh chopped sage offered to your flock free-choice, dried sage added to their feed or sage essential oils in the water might help to beat down the bacteria. Adding sage to your flock's regular diet is a good preventive in any case. Sage is often used in recipes for roast chicken and other chicken dishes. Coincidence? I think not. I think generations ago, through the years, someone figured out the correlation and the two foods began to be paired.
Surviving chickens will be carriers of the disease however, and eggs laid by those hens can contain the bacteria. Fortunately, the likelihood is that Salmonella won't live inside an egg. It would be found in the egg white, which is an alkaline environment and doesn't contain the proper nutrients for the bacteria to thrive. However, the longer the egg sits out without being refrigerated or cooked, the greater chance the bacteria will move towards the yolk and eventually penetrate the yolk, who's nutrient-rich environment will allow the bacteria to grow.
The good news is that your backyard eggs, as long as proper precautions are taken, are unlikely to contain or transmit Salmonella to your family. The threat of Salmonella should NOT dissuade you from raising backyard chickens, handling them as often as possible OR cooking with your eggs.
I enjoy making Egg Nog, Mayonnaise, Pasta Carbonara and Tiramisu with our fresh eggs, all of which contain uncooked or partially cooked eggs. I don't worry because I know (and control) how our flock is housed, fed and raised as well as how our eggs are collected and stored.
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