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Raising backyard chickens has been satisfying some foodies’ affection for the uber-local egg and lower-fat meat in urban areas, including metro Atlanta, for about a decade.
Now the Centers for Disease Control is warning of a downside to the popular trend: salmonella outbreaks traced to some backyard owners kissing and cuddling their flocks.
The CDC findings drew some media attention last month, and a PolitiFact reader who heard the health alert on NPR’s "Morning Edition" on July 16 asked us to dig deeper.
We went directly to the source, the CDC, which is headquartered in Atlanta and has been investigating four recent Salmonella outbreaks that, as of July 29, had infected 218 people in 41 states. Five of them were in Georgia, 19 were in Alabama, 5 were in North Carolina, 11 were in South Carolina and 6 were in Tennessee.
Fifty of the 218 people have required hospitalization for Salmonella, the major symptoms of which are usually diarrhea, fever and abdominal pain. No deaths have been reported, CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said.
So how exactly do CDC officials know that some of these cases are due to backyard breeders kissing and cuddling live poultry?
Dr. Megin Nichols, a veterinarian with the CDC, told PolitiFact the agency has been tracking upward trends in both the number of outbreaks and people infected in the past five years and has been working to trace their causes.
"We’ve been trying to interview these people to find out how they are getting sick," Nichols said. "We are finding a certain proportion that are due to very close contact -- something that surprised us here at the CDC."
Salmonella is a germ that lives naturally in the intestine of chickens, ducks and many other animals. It doesn’t typically make the birds sick, but they can transmit the germs in their droppings and on their feet, feathers and beaks, even when they look clean and healthy, the CDC says.
The germs also can get on their cages, coops, feed, water dishes, hay, plants and the area where they live and roam. In addition, the bacteria can rest on the hands, shoes and clothes of those who work around the birds or play with them.
And Nichols told us that among the people who became ill between 2008 and 2014 due to baby poultry exposure, 49 percent, or 196 out of 400, reported snuggling and holding baby birds.
Another 13 percent, or about 53, reported kissing baby birds, she said.
Those people, many of whom were young children, became sick through fecal oral contact, Nichols said. Those same interviews also showed that about 46 percent of backyard breeders are keeping live poultry in their homes, she said.
Epidemiologic, laboratory, and traceback findings have linked the most recent four outbreaks of human Salmonella infections to contact with chicks, ducklings, and other live poultry from multiple hatcheries.
Interviews have been conducted with 140 of those who were recently ill and, 117, or 84 percent, reported contact with live poultry in the week before their illness began, according to the CDC website. Additional interviews to determine whether that contact included snuggling and kissing have yet to be conducted, Nichols said.
An increasing number of people around the country are choosing to keep live poultry - mostly chickens, ducks, turkeys and geese as part of a greener, healthier lifestyle.
Local governments, including several in metro Atlanta, have changed their zoning ordinances in recent years to accommodate the trend, and groups of backyard poultry buffs meet regularly in the region to talk chicken.
Backyard owners have told reporters at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the benefits include fresh eggs and meat, a built-in source of fertilizer for their gardens and ready-made bug-killers. Some say they give their chickens names, the freedom to roam the house and yard and cuddle and coddle them like family pets.
The larger problem
According to the CDC, salmonella, named for an American scientist who discovered the bacteria, is estimated to cause a million illnesses in the United States a year, with 19,000 hospitalizations and 380 deaths. Most people develop diarrhea and the other conditions within 12 to 72 hour after infection and recover without treatment in four to seven days.
It has the potential to turn deadly if it spreads from the intestines to the bloodstream, and then to other body sites. Prompt treatment with antibiotics is critical, and the elderly, infants, and people with impaired immune systems are more likely to have a severe illness.
In the largest recent outbreak, which occurred between March 2013 and July 2014, more than 600 people in 29 states and Puerto Rico were infected with seven outbreak strains. The outbreak was associated with one brand of chicken, which led to a company recall of more than 40,000 pounds of chicken products, according to the CDC.
To prevent salmonella infections related to backyard farming, the CDC’s Nichols encourages several common-sense rules. These include thorough handwashing after contact with the chicken, keeping live poultry out of the home, and avoiding snuggling, close contact with the birds’ beaks or other close exposure that would allow ingestion of bacteria.
She will be one of the experts featured in a webinar on the topic of practicing backyard bird biosecurity at 7p.m. Thursday.
The CDC has issued a warning against kissing or snuggling backyard chickens. It follows four recent Salmonella outbreaks that, as of July 29, had infected 218 people in 41 states. Five of them were in Georgia.
Interviews have been conducted with 140 of the ill and 117, or 84 percent, reported contact with live poultry in the week before their illness began, according to the CDC website.
The CDC also has evidence from outbreaks between 2008 to 2014. In that period, they found that of the people who became infected with salmonella due to baby poultry exposure, 49 percent, or 196 out of 400 people, reported snuggling and holding baby birds. Another 13 percent, or about 53, reported kissing baby birds..
That’s cause to sound the alarm.
We rate the CDC warning True.
"Chicken Owners Brood Over CDC Advice Not To Kiss, Cuddle Birds," National Public Radio, Morning Edition, July 16, 2015
"Kissing Your Pet Chicken Can Spread Salmonella, CDC Warns," Huffington Post, July 16, 2015
Emails with Kristen Nordlund, public affairs officer, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases/NCEZID, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/CDC
Phone interview with Megin Nichols, a veterinarian with the Centers for Disease Control
Selected USDA Research on Backyard Chickens
'One Health' investigation: outbreak of human Salmonella Braenderup infections traced to a mail-order hatchery - United States, 2012-2013.
Advice to Backyard Flock Owners: Four Multistate Outbreaks of Human Salmonella Infections Linked to Live Poultry in Backyard Flocks, Centers for Disease Control website
"Four Multistate Outbreaks of Human Salmonella Infections Linked to Live Poultry in Backyard Flocks," posted July 31, 2015, the Centers for Disease Control website
Experts to host webinar on backyard farming biosecurity. Learn more at a webinar on Thursday, Aug. 6 at 7 p.m. E.S.T.
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