Emerging Infectious Diseases, a scientific journal published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published yet another scholarly article linking salmonella infections in humans with backyard chickens. The October issue of this respected publication includes an article entitled “Outbreaks of Human Salmonella Infections Associated with Live Poultry, United States, 1990–2014.” The epidemiology in this article is pristine and makes a clear connection between people infected with salmonella and their chickens. But unhappily, there have been several unfortunate consequences of this and other similar CDC studies.
First of all, the popular press has gotten it’s clutches on this news nugget and raced right for the catchy headline while ignoring the broader underlying message. Thus we have Huffington Post, under the category of “weird news” shouting “Kissing Chickens Can Spread Salmonella”; while CNN proclaims, “CDC Report Crushes Your Chicken-Kissing Dreams”, and NPR coyly announces, “Chicken Owners Brood Over CDC Advice Not To Kiss, Cuddle Birds”, and Jezebel interjects, “Hey, Don’t Kiss Chickens.” These headlines would lead one to believe that chicken kissing was the main focus of the study. Kissing chickens was listed as a high risk behavior, but the percentage of people in the study who got salmonella after kissing chickens (13%) was a fraction of those who acquired salmonella after bringing chickens into their houses (46%). But then the popular press obviously thinks chicken kissing is just plain weird while bringing a chicken into your house is hardly worth an eye-roll.
The second problem I have with these studies is that after the CDC has demonstrated a real problem, people getting Salmonella from their backyard chickens, it takes the next step and offers solutions. I’m sure that CDC consulted with a broad range of individuals before proposing solutions, but did it actually talk to anybody in the backyard-chicken-keeping community? From some of the suggested solutions I suspect that it didn’t.
And that lack of dialogue is creating the third problem: There is a growing feeling among some in the backyard-chicken-keeping community that the CDC recommendations for safely keeping chickens is just another example of government intrusion into their lives. One on-line comment: “They don’t want the general public raising chickens!” I’ve been waiting for someone to say, “They can have my chickens when they pry them from my cold, dead hands,” but thus far that has not popped up.
So what are the CDC recommendations? Here they are directly from the CDC website—CDC’s recommendations are bolded, my comments are italicized:
- Always wash your hands with soap and water right after touching live poultry or anything in the area where they live and roam. I always wash my hands when I come into the house after having been in the chicken coop. Do most chicken owners do this? I’m going to guess, “Probably not.” But speaking of washing your hands, many people have dogs and cats living right in their houses with them. There’s probably a LOT of cat and dog petting going on all the time. Cats and dogs, by the way, can carry about a gazillion diseases that are transmissible to humans. The top five are hookworm, roundworms, toxoplasmosis, cryptosporidiosis, and Lyme disease, but the list goes on to include a whole host of other diseases that are rare but often fatal, including plague (aka Black Death). So does CDC recommend that you wash your hands each and every time after interacting with your cat or dog? Well, yes, actually. Yes they do. Does anybody do this? I’m going to guess, “Probably not.” And what about washing your hands after you’ve been in an area where cats and dogs “live and roam”? Yeah, right. Don't misunderstand what I'm saying here - I'm not unloading on cats and dogs--I've got several that live in my house, sleep in my bed, and walk on my face every day. I'm just taking issue with the way CDC seems to be singling out one domestic animal.
- Do not let live poultry inside the house, in bathrooms, or especially in areas where food or drink is prepared, served, or stored. Here’s the deal. Most backyard chicken keepers know that it is practically impossible NOT to bring chickens into their houses in certain circumstances. Many folks start their flocks with baby chicks. Babies need heat, protection from drafts, and a controlled environment that small backyard coops just can’t provide. I would guess that pretty much everybody starts their babies in a box in the basement. By the same token, sick or injured birds also need a controlled environment. The most recent sick chicken to live in my basement was suffering from myiasis, also known as flystrike. She had maggot infested wounds after flies laid eggs on her. She needed a fly-free environment—my basement could provide that but my coop could not.
- Don't let children younger than 5 years, adults older than 65, and people with weakened immune systems handle or touch chicks, ducklings, or other live poultry. Is there good science behind this recommendation? Absolutely. Will everybody say, “Wow! Look at this impressive science! I’m gonna get right behind this good advice!”? Abso-freakin-lutley not! If you’ve got baby chicks you think your kids aren’t going to want to play with them? Come on! I reach the magical age of 65 next year. The chances of me giving up my flock next year are slim to none - and slim just left town. As useful advice, this one ranks up there with a bucket of warm spit.
- If you collect eggs from the hens, thoroughly cook them. Or if you buy them from a store. Or get them from a neighbor, or whatever. Or we could figure out a way to get control of this Salmonella problem and go back to the good old days of homemade mayo, eggnog, and Hollandaise.
- Don't eat or drink in the area where the birds live or roam. Good advice. And then I go back to the dog and cat thing in #1.
- Avoid kissing your birds or snuggling them, then touching your mouth. Good advice. And then I go back to the cat and dog thing in #1.
- Stay outdoors when cleaning any equipment or materials used to raise or care for live poultry, such as cages or feed or water containers. I’ve got running water in my coop, so no prob. Most people probably have a garden hose at the very least. So this is doable. Not bad - there’s at least one bit of advice in this list that can be practically carried out.
- Buy birds from hatcheries that participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Poultry Improvement Plan (USDA-NPIP) U.S. voluntary Salmonella Monitoring Program. This program is intended to reduce the incidence of Salmonella in baby poultry in the hatchery. Yes. Stop disease at the source. If you can eliminate Salmonella from hatcheries and guarantee that all those babies people are bringing into their backyards are Salmonella-free, it would effectively eliminate the main source of Salmonella in backyard flocks. But here’s the problem. Hatcheries that participate in NPIP inspections are tested for the presence of a few diseases: These include a few Mycoplasma diseases—bacterial diseases affecting poultry. Then there are certain strains of avian influenza (low virulence bird flu). Finally, there are tests for a few of the Salmonellas. But certainly not all of the bajillion different Salmonellas that chickens can carry and pass on to you. The other ones are not in the NPIP guidelines and thus they're not tested for. So how valuable is this recommendation? Remember the bucket of warm spit? We’re kinda back to that.
Now I’m going to say something that I think is really important, so I’m going to bold it and italicize it for emphasis. Because to me, this is the whole deal: If we could eliminate Salmonella from backyard flocks, or better yet, ALL flocks, all the CDC recommendations would be moot. And while testing for and eradicating Salmonella from each backyard flock would be expensive and logistically difficult, testing and eradication at the source—the hatcheries and distributors—would provide a huge running start to eliminating Salmonella. And the mechanism for doing that, NPIP, is already in place—it just needs to be broader, stronger, and more enforceable. I suspect that there are hatcheries and distributors out there that are not very keen on this approach and would apply all sorts of political pressure against any legislation that would suggest it. So it’s a whole lot easier and cheaper for government agencies like CDC to make lists of recommendations. And if you're the press, publishing articles against chicken kissing probably actually sells copy. So there you go.
The chief author of the EID publication that set me off on this rant is Dr. Colin Basler, a veterinarian and public health researcher who has done all sorts of good work on a variety of zoonotic diseases. I sent him an email after I read the article expressing many of the same issues that I brought up in this post. I haven’t heard back, but it would be nice if I did. I realize that Dr. Basler doesn’t run the CDC, nor does he have the ability to legislate public health policy. But it would be nice to have somebody in a position of authority recognize that since backyard flocks are growing in popularity for a variety of reasons, all of them good, that the incidence of poultry associated Salmonellosis will also continue to rise. And since “education” by issuing lists of mostly impractical suggestions is not a good strategy for solving the problem, maybe it is time to explore better solutions.