Salmonella from chicks in the mail
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If you’ve ever tasted fresh local eggs for breakfast, you understand why backyard urban flock ownership is trending. But, how those chicks get to backyards all over the country may be a bit unappetizing. 

There are many ways to obtain chicks for backyard flocks — some safer and more humane than others. They can be purchased directly through mail-order hatcheries, bought up at agricultural feed stores (which are largely supplied by the same mail-order hatcheries), bought or rescued through Craigslist, or hatched yourself by obtaining fertilized eggs.

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Let’s talk about the shipping; this is literally where the safe chicks issue "crosses" the road. Mail-order hatcheries are putting millions of day-old chicks and other poultry in the U.S. mail and shipping them cross-country — to all states except Hawaii and West Virginia.

When hatcheries ship chicks to Canada, they are put in clean, state-of-the-art temperature-controlled vans and trucks. When hatcheries ship domestically, day-old chicks are shipped in small cardboard boxes, without food and water, huddled together for warmth. Boxes are labeled live chicks, but shipped with our regular mail.

Shipping, Stress & Salmonella in Handlers

Humane issues aside, shipping chicks is problematic for several reasons. Research has shown that chicks shed more salmonella when stressed, and stress is certainly heightened by the prolonged transportation, confinement, crowding, and increased handling. In addition, co-mingling the chicks increases the probability that those shedding salmonella will infect other chicks. 

Although the chicks are supposed to be received within 72 hours of shipping, many are not, and some die in transit. Even healthy chicks can carry illness-causing salmonella. Now imagine the families waiting for these chicks: young children, those most vulnerable to severe salmonella infections, opening the boxes of cheeping chicks. Families do not anticipate the potential salmonella problem they are about to unleash in their home environment.

Home environments aren’t the only concern. Those boxes containing millions of chicks flying through the USPS are vented, potentially sharing salmonella as they travel — through postal stations, handlers, and the cargo holds of commercial airlines hauling the mail. Salmonella bacteria can survive in the environment for up to one year..

Dr. Megin Nichols, Veterinarian Epidemiologist at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told me that even though the occupation of ill people in outbreaks is not asked, she is aware of two recent postal worker illnesses and seven cases in 2016 of agricultural feed store employees becoming sick with salmonella directly from handling shipments of baby chicks.

Before Buying Chicks, Do Your Homework

Feed stores as well as mail-order hatcheries routinely mix different breeds of young chicks together. You can seek out feed stores that keep the chick breeds completely separated from birth. If purchasing from a mail-order hatchery, ask for recommendations from other hobbyists. Ask about outbreaks in their flocks and whether they are certified by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP). Do they participate in the Salmonella Monitoring Program that just started looking for strains that cause human disease at mail-order hatcheries? It’s a voluntary program for now, but it’s a start.

Mixing chicks spreads different salmonella strains among the breeds, limits the ability of public health authorities to track or trace the chicks, and severely reduces the effectiveness of certification and voluntary NPIP programs. Currently when one hatchery doesn’t have enough chicks to fulfill orders, it’s common to fill orders with birds from other hatcheries without adding the origin/presence of these new birds to shipping labels. This makes tracking the chicks difficult. Tracking chicks responsible for outbreaks to their source can shed light on where increased sanitary measures are necessary and help prevent further cases of illness. Mandating good record-keeping would improve public health.

Backyard Flock Regulation and What’s Next?

Regulation of backyard flock ownership is a patchwork of state-by-state and city-by-city local ordinances. A study of the local rules for 150 U.S. cities from 2015 found that 93 percent of them permitted owning poultry in some capacity. However, local ordinances mostly deal with reducing nuisance to neighbors (such as noise). Seldom do they track who owns flocks or if owners have good information on reducing the transmission of disease from the chickens to humans and the environment. 

On the federal level, we also have a long way to go. Regulatory programs have been started, but as we’ve seen they are voluntary and unable to provide the decisive timely tracking of ill animals needed for good public health outcomes. 

Recent estimates report there are about 20 core hatcheries in the U.S. that handle/ship about 50 million chicks per year. I believe both numbers may be significantly higher. No one knows for certain, because hatcheries do not need to register with any federal or state authority. This should change. In case of an outbreak (eight outbreaks due to backyard chicks to date in 2016), public health authorities need to be able to trace and track where the illness-causing chicks were born and where they have been shipped.

Can we do better?

There is significant need for improvement on both the local and national level. We need a designated leader — one with the authorities needed to orchestrate change. If we continue to treat the rising salmonella outbreaks casually, like just the next urban fad, we may be woefully unprepared for what comes in the mail. There are many international public health threats that are rightly deserving our time and resources these days. We should not ignore this problem in our own backyard!

Donna Emanuel Rosenbaum has her masters degree in communication and is the CEO and lead consultant for Food Safety Partners, Ltd., a national firm that specializes in consumer-based projects. 


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.