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A Peck Of Trouble

The fluffy, bright-eyed chicks huddled under heat lamps fairly beg to be cuddled.

But nearly one-fifth of these fuzzy fowl at the Grange Co-op in Central Point could be contaminated with salmonella, a bacteria that can cause serious illness, particularly in the children clamoring to touch.

A spring 2006 study of 16 agricultural feed stores in Western Oregon turned up salmonella in 18 percent of chicks, the Oregon Department of Human Services reported Thursday. Salmonella poisoning from just-hatched birds represents an ongoing public health concern, one that resurfaces every spring when purchases of poultry are more prevalent, DHS officials said.

"It's not a theoretical risk; it's a real one," said William Keene, senior epidemiologist for DHS.

No feed stores in Jackson County were included in the survey, Keene said.

Fears of contracting salmonella didn't stop Wendy Long from bringing home six chicks Friday to start her own egg-laying flock. Disappointed earlier this month when the Grange's south Medford store sold out of chicks, Long's children — 12, 10 and 7 — eagerly escorted the brood home.

"Salmonella's something you got to worry about at anytime," Long said, adding that she tended chickens and rabbits as a teen.

"There's lots of farms with kids on them," she said.

Poultry should always be kept outside, experts say, to avoid introducing salmonella into homes. Although chicks, ducklings and goslings might look clean, they can carry feces on their feet, feathers and beaks.

Children under 5 shouldn't handle baby birds, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised.

Grange customers are reminded to wash their hands after touching chicks on display in the store. Children should be supervised around the heated metal tubs to ensure they don't put their fingers in their mouths, a printed notice reads.

"The kids reach in and grab 'em, and the parents reach in and grab 'em," said sales clerk Kendra Rogers-Lee. "We ask them to use hand sanitizer when they're done."

Despite cautions pertaining to young children, more adults than kids sicken with salmonella poisoning, Keene said. Salmonella causes diarrhea, fever, vomiting and stomach cramps in humans.

Chicks have been blamed for seven salmonella outbreaks that affected 71 people in Oregon since 1996, DHS reported. Last spring, 81 people in 22 states fell ill with salmonella contracted from chicks, according to the CDC. A record three outbreaks took place around Easter last year, with some of the cases likely linked to birds given as gifts, The Associated Press reported Thursday.

Just one Grange customer this week said she wanted to give chicks for an Easter gift, Rogers-Lee said. In any case, limited numbers are available for customers that didn't place an advance order and pre-pay, she added. The Grange changed its approach to stocking chicks this year in hopes of avoiding groups of unsold hatchlings, said store manager Norm Rush. But the policy also prevents the impulse-buying of chicks, he said.

About 250 day-old chicks of eight different breeds arrived at the Grange Friday morning from a Texas hatchery, Rogers-Lee said. About 75 had not been earmarked for customers. Hatcheries in Washington, New Mexico and Michigan were linked last year to salmonella outbreaks, DHS reported.

People who buy chicks for livestock should be aware that their statistical risk for salmonella exposure increases, possibly to 50 percent, Keene said.

"Most of the people that are getting chicks don't buy one chick," he said.

"If they're going to get these kinds of birds ... this is something to think about."

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.

Central Point Grange Co-op sales clerk Jessie Hummel, 16, holds a day-old chick from the store’s display Friday. Possible salmonella poisoning from birds that are just hatched represents an ongoing public health concern every spring, health experts say.