UGA study finds salmonella less prevalent in organic chicken

Organic chicken isn’t just healthier for you – it’s also safer, according to a new University of Georgia study.

Salmonella shows up less on organic farms than it does on conventional farms, Walid Alali said. Alali, an assistant professor at UGA’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, visited seven farms in North Carolina – three organic and four conventional – to perform his research, which points to organic chickens as healthier birds than their conventionally-raised brethren.

“Because chickens spread salmonella horizontally, when there are fewer birds, it spreads less,” he said.

The organic chickens Alali studied came from three USDA-certified organic farms, which shouldn’t be confused with free-range farms.

The chickens on organic farms are kept in houses just like on conventional farms, except the houses are brighter and more open to give the chickens more room.

The organic chickens also are fed organically grown food like corn and soybeans that is free of animal byproduct. The organic feed rarely contains salmonella, while conventional feed is full of it, Alali said.

“The feed they eat is a big part of the equation,” he said. “They also get more sunlight, less dust – it’s a better environment.”

Salmonella affects more than 140,000 Americans every year from chicken products, and about 30 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The infection causes diarrhea, abdominal cramps and a fever that can last for a week.

Chickens themselves don’t suffer from the infection – they’re just carriers, Alali said. Salmonella is all over farms and ends up in chicken feathers or fecal matter, he said.

For his research, Alali collected the chickens’ feces, feed and water samples from each of the seven farms over two consecutive flocks. He tested the samples for salmonella at his laboratory in Griffin.

He found that chickens from the organic farms had a 4.3 percent rate of salmonella prevalence. The conventional chickens, on the other hand, were affected 28.8 percent of the time – nearly seven times more.

Alali went to North Carolina because there are no USDA-certified organic farms in Georgia, though there are about 10 pasture-raised poultry farms in the state, he said.

“Organic-pasture poultry makes up just 1.5 percent of the chicken market,” he said. “It’s about two to three times more expensive. It’s definitely a niche product.”

But is the product trending upward?

It’s a tough hike, Alali said, considering the slumping economy. He doesn’t believe it will ever challenge the commercially-raised chicken that fills grocery stores everywhere.

“But it does have its fans,” he said. “You go to the local markets, and people are buying it.”

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