Written by Joan Hegerfeld-Baker (former SDSU Extension Food Safety Specialist).
Even though they don’t affect human health or food safety, events such as the ongoing avian influenza outbreak help raise awareness of safe food production and handling all the way from the farm to the table. Everyone along the chain – from producers and processors to retail outlets to consumers – shares responsibility for providing families safe, wholesome food. The production, processing, and preparing of poultry products are great illustrations of this shared responsibility.
Food safety concerns are real for all types and sizes of poultry farms – from small farm and backyard flocks to large poultry houses. Bacteria that are potentially harmful to people are commonly associated with all types of poultry production and processing environments. Pennsylvania State University researchers (Scheinberg, et al, 2013) investigated the prevalence of Campylobacter spp. and Salmonella spp. in whole chickens from farmers’ markets and supermarkets in Pennsylvania. They demonstrated that 28% and 90% of chicken from farmers’ markets, 20% and 28% of conventionally produced organic, and 8% and 52% of non-organic chicken were positive for Campylobacter spp. and Salmonella spp. respectively. These human pathogens are of special concern because they can be found in healthy flocks with no apparent effects on the bird. For all the attention avian influenza is currently attracting in the poultry industry, that particular virus is not associated with any human health problems.
On The Farm
Even though these potentially harmful pathogens are common in flocks, poultry raisers can reduce their chances of flock infection, and potentially the level of bacterial contamination, by carrying out basic flock health measures:
- Biosecurity. Limit the number of visitors, vehicles, and outside equipment that has contact with your birds. These measures have proven critical in the prevention of avian influenza infections, but also play a key role in keeping new strains of bacteria out of a flock.
- Wild bird and rodent control. Reduce the likelihood that wild migratory or resident birds will have contact with your poultry. Move birds away from bodies of water frequented by migratory waterfowl. Do what you can to reduce rodent populations around your birds.
- Nutrition and water. Ensure birds are receiving clean water and a nutritious ration for their stage of production. Well-nourished birds are less likely to become ill and shed increased numbers of bacteria in their droppings.
- Parasite and disease control. Control coccidiosis and internal parasites. These syndromes serve as a nutritional and immunological drain on the birds’ systems. Use vaccines when warranted to prevent other infectious diseases that may increase the birds’ likelihood of shedding bacteria.
Poultry raisers themselves are at risk for illness from these bacteria through contact with their birds. Salmonella or Campylobacter can find their way onto the birds’ feathers, feet and beaks, and into the birds’ environment such as housing, bedding, equipment, and soil. Therefore, follow the safe practices when handling birds:
- Wash your hands after touching poultry or equipment in their surroundings, using proper hand-washing techniques. Proper hand-washing techniques include using soap and warm, running water; rubbing your hands vigorously with soap and water for 20 seconds (about the time it takes to sing the alphabet song); washing the backs of your hands, your wrists, between your fingers, and under your fingernails; rinsing well; drying thoroughly with a paper towel; and turning off water faucets with your elbow or a paper towel.
- If you do not have access to a hand-washing facility, use hand sanitizer until you are able to wash your hands.
- Children are especially vulnerable to illness due to these bacteria. Ensure that a child handling chicks keeps his or her hands away from the face, especially the mouth and eyes. They should not snuggle or kiss chicks.
- Do not let poultry inside the house or in outdoor-living spaces, especially in areas where food and drink are prepared, served, or stored. Such areas include kitchens and outdoor patios.
- Do not clean poultry equipment in areas where food and drink are prepared, such as a kitchen sink. It is better to wash such equipment outside the house.
Slaughter & Processing
It’s essential that all sizes and types of poultry operations take care during slaughter and processing. Since small-flock poultry producers are exempt from poultry inspection by federal or state inspection, it’s especially important that they understand the precautions necessary to produce a safe product. For these operations, processing often takes place in a barn or farm yard. These types of environments pose a risk for increased levels of bacterial contamination.
It is critical to slaughter and process poultry under sanitary conditions using practices and procedures that produce poultry products that are sound, clean, and fit for human food.
Food and non-food contact surfaces should be cleaned and sanitized as necessary to prevent the conditions which can lead to an adulterated product. Use cleaning and sanitizing compounds that have been proven safe and effective, and follow their instructions for use closely.
Rodents, other animals and insects must be excluded from areas where poultry is slaughtered, processed and stored. Sewage and waste disposal systems must properly remove feces, feathers, trash, garbage and paper from the facility. Sewage must be disposed through a separate drainage system to prevent backup into other lines that could contaminate the slaughter, processing and handling areas.
Water supply and water, ice and solution rinse must comply with South Dakota drinking water regulations. If using a private well, it should be tested and meet the SD drinking water regulations. The SD Department of Environment and Natural Resources oversees the drinking water regulations or call 605-773-3754.
It’s critical that the people handling the poultry are healthy and stay clean throughout the entire process. A worker should not be allowed to handle poultry at any step of slaughter and processing if they are suffering from diarrhea, vomiting, jaundice, sore throat, fever, or if they live with or are exposed to someone experiencing a food borne illness. Clothes should be clean, hands washed and hair restrained. People handling and slaughtering live birds should be kept separate from processing, unless they have changed clothing and thoroughly washed hands and forearms.
Carcasses should be frozen quickly for the best quality and safety. If using a home freezing unit, chill the carcass to 40°F in an ice slush bath, package and spread out in the freezer allowing for air circulation. Do not overstock the freezer.
On-farm Poultry Slaughter and Processing Guidelines publications can be found at the Northeast Beginning Farmers Project website.
USDA FSIS Food Safety Education Program
Poultry may be purchased fresh or frozen. If chicken is fresh it must maintain a constant temperature at or below 40°F. This is difficult to attain if producers are transporting directly to the consumer or selling at a farmers’ market. Therefore, direct-marketed poultry is often in the frozen state. This would be the recommended method of sale to decrease the foodborne illness risks associated with unsafe food temperatures.
When purchasing the chicken at the farmers’ market make certain it has been and is in a frozen state. If it is not completely frozen, do not purchase the bird - this is an indication that temperature has been improperly controlled. As the consumer, you are responsible for keeping the bird frozen until you are home. If not going directly home, have a cooler with ice available.
Thaw frozen poultry in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave (or a combination of the three). Thawing whole, bone-in parts or chicken breasts in the refrigerator requires time – 1 to 2 days. If using cold water, submerge chicken in airtight leak-proof package and change the water every 30 minutes. A whole bird would take approximately 2 to 3 hours and should be cooked immediately. If thawing in the microwave, go directly to cooking. Cooking can also serve as an option for thawing. Never cook frozen chicken in a slow cooker or microwave – thaw first. Recommended storage time for uncooked poultry in the refrigerator is 1 to 2 days and 3 to 4 days for fully cooked poultry.
Washing raw poultry before preparing is not recommended. Washing does not destroy bacteria on the surface of the chicken, but will spread bacteria from the skin to other foods, utensils and surfaces. This is called cross-contamination.
All poultry should be cooked to a minimum of 165°F (ground, whole or parts). Measure the temperature with a meat thermometer. The innermost part of the thigh and wing as well as the thickest part of the breast serve as the best locations to take the internal final temperature. This is the last stop to make sure the food is safe. There should be no compromise on final cooking temperature of poultry. Never partially cook poultry to finish cooking at a later time.
For more information on safe handling and cooking or poultry contact AnswerLine by calling 1.800.393.6636 (if calling from South Dakota).
- FSIS USDA Food-Safety-Education. Chicken from Farm to Table. Mar 24, 2015.
- Hegerfeld-Baker, J. July 2014. Selling Poultry at a Farmers’ Market in South Dakota. SDSU Extension. iGrow.org
- Jacob. J. May 5, 2015. Salmonella and Backyard Chickens. Small and Backyard Flocks
- Scheinberg, J.A. , Doores S., Cutter, C.N. 2013. A microbiological comparison of poultry products obtained from farmers’ markets and supermarkets in Pennsylvania. Journal of Food Safety 33 (2013) 259-264 © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
- Newell, D. G., Fearnley, C. 2003. Sources of Campylobacter Colonization in Broiler Chickens. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 69(8) 4343-4351.