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Bad news for New Mexico farming town

Baby poultry, traced to Portales, New Mexico, hatchery is blamed for salmonella outbreak in 37 states.

Rural residents in and around Portales, New Mexico, are wondering what might happen next.

The community, still reeling after a salmonella outbreak at the Sunland Peanut plant last year resulted in many local workers temporary losing their jobs, is now facing what seems to be round two of ill fortune, namely, 316 new salmonella cases nationwide that have been linked back to Privett Hatchery in Portales.

As of last week, salmonella cases in 37 states had been linked back to poultry from the chicken, duck and turkey hatchery in the eastern part of the state. Colorado reported the greatest number of cases with 37; Texas followed with 32. Nebraska, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Missouri, and Utah all reported double digit numbers of confirmed cases.

Nearly 51 people have been hospitalized so far nationwide. Nearly 60 percent of all cases involved children. The Salmonella infections have been linked to contact with chicks, ducklings, and other live baby poultry.

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One local official, who offered his thoughts only if he could remain unidentified, said regardless the outcome of the ongoing investigation into this latest outbreak, the community has already taken a second hit linked back to the city. He points to the closing of the peanut plant and the negative local economic impact of that incident over the last year and says he fears what another round of cloudy economic times could mean to local businesses and residents.

He also said, in contrast, he was confident the city has a strong heart and spirit and he expects they will survive this incident regardless of their problems. 

Portales is a city of about 13,000 and is the county seat of Roosevelt County, New Mexico. The area is noted for its agriculture production, especially for high quality alfalfa and a growing number of dairies. Portales is also one of the largest producers of Valencia peanuts in the United States and is the nation's top producer of Certified Organic peanut butter.

So far, federal investigators have said that over the last several months researchers discovered a number of salmonella strains that shared a DNA fingerprint and a common thread. It appears tests on a number of individuals exposed to the sickness recently indicated the bacterium associated with the strain was spread by baby poultry that had been sold at multiple feed stores around the country, and the young poultry had originated from Privett Hatchery in Portales.

DNA match made the connection

Investigators tested the hatchery and turned up a DNA match with the same fingerprint from a swab taken inside a duck pen at the facility.

"It's a complicated outbreak because there's so many different feed stores involved and so many different hatcheries have supplied birds to them," reports Paul Ettestad, Public Health Veterinarian for the State of New Mexico.

He says there is little doubt the fingerprints match, and said the hatchery is working with a company to develop a custom vaccine that can be used at the facility.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), children are disproportionately affected in outbreaks associated with live poultry as their immune systems are not fully developed. They are also less likely than adults to wash their hands properly and more likely than adults to put their fingers in their mouths after handling animals and pets.

“I want to emphasize how cooperative the hatchery has been in helping to identify the source of this outbreak by working with officials from numerous agencies. Privett Hatchery was willing to conduct multiple tests,” said New Mexico Department of Health Secretary Retta Ward, in a statement. “The Department wants to remind parents not to keep live baby poultry in their homes. Any time anyone handles baby ducklings or chicks, they need to wash their hands thoroughly to reduce the risk of contracting Salmonella.”

In its announcement of the outbreak, the N.M. state health department described Privett Hatchery as “a leading innovator on the national level for years in helping to reduce the level of Salmonella in live baby poultry sold to the public.”

Health officials say the hatchery has taken a number of steps to prevent further illnesses, including removing all poultry from the pen where the positive environmental sample was taken. The company is also in the process of vaccinating birds at the hatchery; eggs are undergoing decontamination before entry into the hatchery; protocols for cleaning and disinfecting the hatchery and associated equipment have been implemented; and structural improvements to the facilities have been made.

Company officials say they will continue to work diligently to prevent any further contamination and are cooperating with all state and federal agencies to remedy problems.


More articles of interest:

Peanut plant puts workers back to work, pays some farmers

New Mexico growers cheer peanut plant returning to operation

FDA’s newly proposed food safety regs

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