WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Agriculture has developed a device that it says drastically reduces salmonella in week- old birds and egg-laying hens.
The device, six years in the making, uses electrostatic charges to clean dust particles and microorganisms from the air, said Bailey W. Mitchell, the USDA Agricultural Research Service scientist who invented the device.
He said the device reduces the potential for airborne transmission of salmonella and other microorganisms by about 95 percent.
“It’s really a very simple device. It’s a simple concept,” said Mitchell of his “electrostatic space-charge system.”
Despite the idea’s simplicity, Mitchell said past efforts at reducing salmonella in hatcheries have only had about 20 to 30 percent reduction rates.
Salmonella is a bacteria found in raw meats, eggs, insufficiently cooked poultry and other foods. Human symptoms can range from headaches and nausea all the way up to a typhoid-like fever that, in the most severe cases, can result in death, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
The FDA estimates that 2 million to 4 million cases of salmonellosis occur in the United States every year and that incidents appear to be on the rise.
The simplest defense against salmonella for the consumer is sufficient cooking, said Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the National Broiler Council in Washington. He said poultry must be cooked to at least 160 degrees to kill the bacteria.
“There’s no one single answer to the salmonella problem,” said Lobb.
“A number of things are being done already and if this [device] turns out to be an effective means to reduce salmonella, I’m sure it will be adopted,” he said.
Mitchell said his device could be available by the end of next year, depending on how soon it can be licensed and marketed. He filed for a patent in July and said several large broiler companies have already expressed interest in it.
The machine is “probably not the kind of thing your average farmer would have,” but will be used primarily by large poultry companies and hatchery farms, Mitchell said. He estimates the device will cost $1,000 to $1,500 for a 15,000-egg hatching cabinet.
The problem has been that dust, feathers and egg-shell particles, which carry disease- causing organisms, are hard to contain, making cleanup and disinfection of hatcheries difficult.
Mitchell’s device transfers a strong, negative electrostatic charge to the particles, which can then be collected on grounded plates. The plates are rinsed several times an hour, getting rid of the bacteria threat.
The machine is made up of a bank of electrodes that are operated at 30,000 volts. Mitchell said no safety hazards have been associated with the machine, but that a person who touched the electrodes could get a shock. The electrodes can be concealed to prevent that, he said.
There are no indications that the device could have any ill effects on the birds, Mitchell said.
The hatchery stage is just one step in the process of getting a chicken from the farm to the grocery store. Scientists are working on reducing salmonella contamination at all stages but hatcheries are the primary place the disease problems start, Mitchell said.
Although it has not yet been studied through to the market stage, Mitchell, who has worked on air-borne disease transmission for 30 years said, “it’s a fair assumption that if you can reduce it [salmonella] early on, you’ll reduce it at the market stage.”
The device has also shown to improve overall hatchability by 1 percent. Mitchell said with approximately 100 million broiler chicks produced in the United States each week, “a 1 percent increase would really add up.”