How to Steer Clear of Salmonella in Backyard Chickens
Outbreaks of the bacteria in home flocks have sickened hundreds as many people started raising poultry during the pandemic
As a journalist who writes about food safety, I’m used to reporting on illness outbreaks that stem from poultry produced by major companies. But bacteria from food-producing animals can also originate closer to home: in backyard chickens.
In fact, in recent months salmonella outbreaks linked to backyard flocks across the country have caused at least 863 illnesses, 209 hospitalizations, and two deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those who have been infected, 220, or more than one-fourth, are children younger than 5 years old.
The surge in illnesses comes as many Americans—in rural, suburban, and urban areas—have been raising chickens during the pandemic as a way to provide their own eggs. And while the birds harbor a variety of bacteria, salmonella is one of the most worrisome and prevalent.
It was my nephew Zach's idea to raise chickens in his family's backyard.
“I’m pretty conscientious about keeping the area clean,” says my sister-in-law, Judi Rabkin. “I’m also careful about basic hygiene—like washing my hands after feeding the chickens—to try to avoid picking up any germs.”
Blatchford says that keeping things hygienic is critical, and he also recommends several other steps that owners of backyard flocks can take to reduce the risk of illness. With these tips, which are consistent with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you can enjoy your chickens—and their eggs—while avoiding the spread of salmonella.
Choose Chicks From Reputable Farmers
When buying chickens, look for a farm or hatchery that participates in the National Poultry Improvement Plan, which means that it monitors its poultry for certain diseases and won’t sell eggs or chicks that are carrying specific dangerous bacteria. “If the hatchery is part of the NPIP, it tests regularly for salmonella strains, and the poultry should be clean,” Blatchford says.
Build a Fence
Even if your chicks arrive salmonella-free, the pathogen can still be in the environment. For instance, rodents and other wild animals can carry salmonella and spread it to your chickens. The best way to guard against predators or other animals from coming into contact with your chickens is to put secure fencing around your coop.
The enclosed fence keeps predators away from the chickens.
Clean Your Coop Regularly
If your coop is overflowing with waste and chicken feces, it’s harder to contain the germs, so it’s important that you clean it periodically. Note that there’s no exact science on how often a coop should be cleaned. “It varies depending on how many birds you have and what kind of material you have in your coop,” Blatchard says. “It’s hard to describe how a dirty coop looks but you know it when you see it, and you want to clean it before you start to smell it.” As a point of reference, my sister-in-law cleans the family’s coop about once a week.
Keep Your Coop Supplies Separate
While most people don’t think of creating a germ barrier between their backyard and their home, you’ll want to avoid tracking bacteria from the coop into your house. To do this, designate specific shoes to wear while in the coop, or put on disposable booties to be used only when around the chickens and their droppings. (My sister-in-law keeps a supply of paper booties for guests, like me, to put over our shoes when we visit the chickens.) Also, keep coop tools (like rakes or shovels) separate from other backyard tools so you don’t cross-contaminate your garden supplies with chicken bacteria. And if you lend your coop tools to a friend or neighbor, disinfect them between uses. “Sharing tools is one of the main ways that microbes flow between backyard flocks,” Blatchard says.
Wearing disposable booties inside the coop keeps you from tracking bacteria into the house.
Don’t Get Too Cozy With Your Chickens
“Because backyard flocks are this mix between food animal and companion animal, we, as owners, sometimes do certain behaviors that are really risky in terms of food safety—like kissing and cuddling them,” Blatchford says. But it’s critical to remember that chickens carry bacteria that can make you sick. So avoid getting cuddly with them, wash your hands after handling them, and consider changing your clothes if you’ve held them in your arms. My family will admit that it’s hard to resist the occasional cuddle, especially when you have baby chicks.
Cuddling chickens is generally a no-no. But if you do pick up a chicken, clean your hands afterward.
Handle Eggs Smartly
Because eggs can carry salmonella, follow these tips when handling them:
- Collect eggs from the nest often so that they are less likely to break and get dirty, which could spread bacteria.
- Don’t wash the eggs before storing them. Freshly laid eggs have a clear biofilm on their shells. This layer has antimicrobial properties that protect the inside of the egg from external microbes. Plus, washing the eggs in cold water can cause the membranes inside the eggs to contract, which can suck germs through the shell’s pores to the inside of the egg, where they can multiply.
- To remove dirt, you can wipe the eggs with a paper towel or fine sandpaper. “For people who are really grossed out by not washing eggs, you can wash them right before you use them,” Blatchford says. “Even if there is salmonella on the egg, it won’t have a chance to get into the egg, and you’ll kill the salmonella when you cook it thoroughly.”
- Store the eggs in the refrigerator to prevent any germs that may be on the shell from multiplying. (Bacteria thrive in warm environments.)
Collect eggs carefully and often.
Wash Your Hands
After touching the chickens, their food, eggs, waste, or cleaning tools, thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water to avoid spreading their germs. You can also use hand sanitizer in a pinch. For instance, my sister-in-law keeps a bottle of hand sanitizer hanging on the outside of her coop, which cues everyone to clean their hands after visiting the chickens.
My sister-in-law Judi gives my kiddo Lena some hand sanitizer after they're done in the coop.
Know the Symptoms of Salmonella
If you experience symptoms such as diarrhea, a high fever, bloody stool, or vomiting, see a doctor.
Editor’s Note: This article, originally published on July 28, 2021, has been updated to include new information from the CDC about salmonella outbreaks linked to backyard chickens.