Salmonella in Chickens – Why CDC Wants You to Stop Kissing Your Hens – And Why the CDC Suggestions Are Not Working

Salmonella in Chickens – Why CDC Wants You to Stop Kissing Your Hens – And Why the CDC Suggestions Are Not Working

They’re at it again.  I’m talking about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, known to all it’s friends as “The CDC” and known to all us backyard chicken folks as “Dour Aunt Dorothy who wags a disapproving finger every time we share a little affection with sweet Henrietta Hencakes.”  And I’m talking about CDC’s latest in a continuing series of impractical recommendations to backyard chicken keepers about how they should interact with their backyard chickens.  There’s an ongoing serious Salmonella outbreak occurring among folks who keep backyard chickens, and CDC’s best response is to continue to trot out essentially the same old list of impractical rules.  The rule that stands out, and the one that the popular press always locks right onto is the decree to stop kissing our pet chickens.  I’ve talked about the chicken-kissing brou-ha-ha before (here), and I will admit that I was a bit snarky in that post.  This time around I’m going to grit my teeth and try really hard to discontinue the snark and earnestly demonstrate the flaw with the way the CDC is dealing with this serious problem.

And to be clear, it is a very serious problem.  In its August 30 statement, CDC reported that “a total of 1003 people infected with the outbreak strains of Salmonella have been reported from 49 states. Of 605 people with hospitalization information available, 175 (29%) have been hospitalized. Two deaths have been reported…Of 850 ill people with age information available, 192 (23%) are children younger than 5 years. Epidemiologic and laboratory evidence indicate that contact with backyard poultry, such as chicks and ducklings, from multiple hatcheries are the likely source of these outbreaks.”

In the same statement CDC lists their recommendations for getting this outbreak under control.  They include:

  • “Don’t let backyard poultry inside the house, especially in areas where food or drink is prepared, served, or stored.” If you’ve had backyard chickens for any length of time, you’ve probably brought hens into your house when they’ve become ill - to sequester them from the other chickens and keep them close at hand for treatment and monitoring. Also, more than likely you started your baby chicks in a quiet corner of your house because they’re fragile and need to be protected from the elements. And more than likely, bringing your chickens into your house in those circumstances was the only option available to you. So, when CDC posts the recommendation about keeping chickens out of your house all you can do is read it and shrug.

  • “Children younger than 5, adults aged 65 and older, and people who have health problems or take medicines that lower the body’s ability to fight germs and sickness shouldn’t handle or touch chicks, ducklings, or other poultry.” This recommendation not only precludes me from having poultry, but it also would end all the positive and enriching programs at daycares, preschools, and geriatric facilities.

  • “Don’t kiss backyard poultry or snuggle them and then touch your face or mouth.” Actually, if there’s a chance that your chickens are contaminated with Salmonella, this is good advice. But, boy howdy, how the popular press loves to grab this suggestion and run with it!

What if Your Dog Was Making You Sick?

Let’s examine this problem from another angle for a moment.  Imagine that a significant number of people started getting sick from a disease they caught from their dogs or cats.  This is not a far-fetched scenario since there are any number of diseases that we can catch from our canine and feline pets.  Do you suppose that CDC would react to this outbreak by telling us to boot our companion animals out of our houses, to stop snuggling with them, and for the very young and old to get rid of their animals completely?  Or do you think, perhaps, that the CDC and other government agencies would get to work to develop a strategy to eliminate the disease from our cats and dogs?  If you’re like me, you’re betting on the second scenario.  And if that strategy is  feasible for cats and dogs, why can’t it be used for chickens – animals that are moving in ever-increasing numbers from farms to urban backyards everywhere?

Why is nobody working on eliminating Salmonella from chickens in general and backyard flocks in particular?  Is it because it’s really hard to do?  Or is it more a matter of government inertia and other forces working against such a strategy?  I’m going to list three avenues that could be explored to solve the Salmonella-in-chickens problem.  All three have potential, and if used in tandem, I think they would solve the problem.

1 - NPIP With Teeth

“NPIP” is the abbreviation for the National Poultry Improvement Plan, a program run by the US Dept. of Agriculture with the purpose of eliminating Salmonella and other disease-causing organisms from flocks through monitoring and sanitation practices.  CDC, to its credit, discusses NPIP in its August 30 statement.  It suggests that “stores that sell or display poultry…source birds sold from suppliers that…voluntarily participate in the USDA’s National Poultry Improvement Plan.”  The problem lies with the word “voluntarily.”  NPIP is not a mandatory program, and since all that monitoring and sanitation takes some cash, not all poultry suppliers choose to participate.  While there would, without a doubt, be a huge lobbying effort against it, if NPIP became mandatory, it would be a first step in getting a handle on the Salmonella problem.

2 - Salmonella Vaccinations

About ten years ago, the US Food and Drug Administration considered mandating vaccinating laying hens for Salmonella.  They ultimately decided to omit vaccinations from their guidelines because, as they stated at the time, there was “not enough evidence to conclude that vaccinating hens against Salmonella would prevent people from getting sick.”  Perhaps lobbying by the egg industry against vaccinations (the cost of vaccinations would raise the cost of the production of a dozen eggs less than a penny) was also a large deciding factor.  In the past ten years since the FDA guidelines went into effect without a stipulation for vaccination, there have been numerous Salmonella outbreaks due to contaminated eggs resulting in thousands of people being sickened and millions of eggs being recalled.  Meanwhile, as I reported in my post “Salmonella in Eggs: It’s Poisonal,” the UK began to vaccinate laying hens for Salmonella in the late 1990’s.  The number of reported Salmonella cases in that country dropped from 14,771 in 1997 to just 581 in 2009.

Salmonella vaccinations work to eliminate Salmonella from eggs because they eliminate it from the entire chicken, as the study linked here and countless others have shown.  Why isn’t the CDC or anybody else talking about vaccinating backyard chickens?  It could be a bullet point right after the one about not kissing your chicken – but I’ve never seen a word on the subject.

3 – Competitive Exclusion Products

Competitive exclusion products are essentially probiotics – and they work extremely well to prevent Salmonella and other bad bugs from colonizing a baby chick’s intestines.  Bear with me as I fill the rest of this paragraph with a quick primer on intestines and the organisms that live in them.  The intestines of chickens, and people and all other animals are chock-full of bacteria and other tiny organisms.  There are more organisms in any animal’s intestines than there are cells in their entire body.  And that’s normal, healthy, and good.   Baby chicks, baby humans and all other babies are born with sterile intestines – devoid of any organisms.  Baby humans and other mammals get their first dose of organisms from their mom as they pass through the birth canal. Baby chicks hatch, so obviously don't get any organisms through that route.  In fact, what happens is that shortly after they hatch, they start pecking at random stuff around them.  Much of what they peck is mixed with their mom's poop which is all around the nest--thus they populate their own intestines with the same population of bacteria that their mom has by eating stuff contaminated with her poop.  That, again, is normal, healthy and good.  The baby chick’s intestines are colonized by normal, good organisms that grow a protective layer over the entire surface of the intestinal wall.  In order for Salmonella or any other bad bug to colonize the chick’s intestines, it first needs to fight its way through the protective layer of good organisms.  This filling up of the entire surface of the intestine with good organisms and disallowing the attachment of bad organisms is called “competitive exclusion.” Now, imagine a modern hatchery operation.  There is no mother hen--thousands of baby chicks hatch in incubators and peck up whatever random bugs are in that environment.  Bad organisms have a greater opportunity to attach to and breach the intestinal wall due to the lack of a population of normal good organisms. 

About twenty-five years ago researchers wondered if subjecting hatchery chicks to the intestinal flora of normal, healthy hens would fill up all their intestinal binding sites with good bugs and disallow Salmonella and other bad bugs from becoming established.  A variety of studies were conducted where hatchery chicks were dosed with intestinal organisms from adult chickens.  The chicks were then subjected to Salmonella and a variety of other bad bugs. While almost no chicks in test groups were affected by the pathogens, almost all chicks in the control groups either succumbed to the bad bugs or incorporated them into their gut flora.  Based on this research, major drug companies developed competitive exclusion products that are now sold and effectively used around the world.

In the US, researchers developed a product that consisted of 29 bacterial strains with good binding affinity taken from the intestinal flora of healthy chickens.  They conducted studies with baby chicks and their product was shown to be effective at keeping Salmonella and other bad bugs at bay.  They received FDA approval in 1998 and the product went to market with the name "Preempt."  It launched with a lot of fanfare and media attention, but by 2002 the company stopped producing it because it was not selling.  It worked really well, but poultry producers looked at their bottom line didn’t see the point of spending the penny a bird that it cost.

While there is no longer any competitive exclusion product on the market in this country, it still shows great promise and perhaps could be very useful in reducing or even eliminating Salmonella from backyard flocks.  But it’s hard to find any information on it anywhere.  Maybe CDC could give it a bullet – perhaps right before the one about chicken kissing.

And so….

Stay tuned for future posts on NPIP, Salmonella vaccinations, and competitive exclusion.  As a retired microbiologist and a chicken guy, I think they are all pretty interesting subjects that need to be explored.  But, I’m just one retired guy with a backyard flock who writes a chicken blog.  To get some traction, these promising ideas need to get some attention from a government agency.  Imagine if the CDC would start talking about them….

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