The hazards of backyard poultry and the eggs they lay

Stephanie Smith, Food Safety

From Jan. 1 through Aug. 30 of this year, 1,003 people were infected with various strains of Salmonella from backyard poultry. These illnesses have resulted in 175 hospitalizations and two deaths across the country.

Washington and Idaho have reported 16 and nine confirmed illnesses, respectively. However, the number of people sick is likely to be much higher because of underreporting of illnesses to local health departments.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that approximately 23 percent of these illnesses were in children 5 and younger. This is especially concerning because this age demographic is more likely to have serious complications because of their under-developed immune systems.

Poultry, including chicks, chickens, ducks, ducklings, geese and turkeys, can carry Salmonella even if they appear healthy and clean. Although the bacteria live in the intestinal tracks of poultry, Salmonella can be found in their droppings and can contaminate eggs, feathers, feet and beaks. Additionally, coops, cages, bedding and nearby plants and soil can also become contaminated.

People become infected after handling the poultry, or poultry-associated objects, then touching their mouths. For example, people often become ill from touching surfaces or eating without washing their hands after being in contact with poultry.

Once infected, most people develop diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps 12 to 72 hours after being exposed and the illness generally lasts four to seven days. Most people recover without treatment, but in immune-compromised individuals, the illness may be severe enough to require hospitalization, or in rare cases, result in death.

The CDC has a list of recommendations for backyard flock owners, and those who have contact with live poultry:

Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling poultry, after handling poultry food and water dishes or other equipment, after cleaning poultry coops, or anything in enclosures, such as perches or other equipment, after being in areas near poultry even if you did not touch the birds, and before you eat, drink or smoke.

Supervise proper handwashing of young children. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.

Don’t let backyard poultry or poultry-associated equipment inside the house, especially in areas where food or drink is prepared, served or stored.

Dedicate shoes to wear while taking care of poultry and keep those shoes outside of the house.

Children younger than five, 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.

Don’t eat or drink in areas where poultry live or roam.

Regardless of how much you love your backyard poultry, don’t kiss or snuggle them. Keep live poultry away from your mouth.

The CDC also has a list of recommendations for handling eggs from backyard poultry. Eggs should be collected often to prevent them from becoming dirty or breaking. Bacteria can easily enter the shell of a cracked egg, so cracked eggs should be discarded because bacteria on the shell can contaminate the egg’s interior.

Eggs should be cleaned with fine sandpaper, a brush or cloth. Never wash warm, fresh eggs because water can pull bacteria into the egg. Always refrigerate eggs after collection to maintain freshness and to slow bacterial growth.

When cooking eggs, the yolk and white should be firm before eating. Any dishes containing eggs should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 160 degrees F.

For more tips on proper handling of backyard poultry, visit the CDC’s website at at this shortened URL: bit.ly/2ppRW22.

If you have a food safety question you would like to see appear in this column, send your question to us at food.safety@wsu.edu.


Dr. Stephanie Smith is an assistant professor and statewide consumer food safety specialist for Washington State University Extension. She can be reached at food.safety@wsu.edu or at (855) 335-0575.

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