Avian flu affects poultry farmers and consumers | TSLN.com

Avian flu affects poultry farmers and consumers

Loretta Sorenson
for Tri-State Livestock News

Most poultry facilities hit hard by the recent H5N2 avian influenza epidemic in Minnesota, Iowa, North and South Dakota, Wisconsin, Nebraska and several other states are either beginning or in the final stages of recovery activities.

Symptoms of H5N2 include fever, ruffled feathers, potential neurological symptoms and relatively quick death for infected birds. Euthanizing chickens and turkeys has been a humane way to prevent extensive suffering as well as reducing the spread of the virus.

Hot, dry temperatures in the region are currently helping kill the flue virus and at least reduce if not eliminate most new infections. On June 16, Iowa reported that a probable case of avian flu had turned up at Wright Count facility.

In all, some 41.1 million layer chickens and pullets and about 7.5 million turkeys were lost between the months of March 2015 and June 2015.

Because the disease outbreak was so widespread and shut down large poultry and egg producing facilities in several states, concerns about the availability of chicken, turkey and eggs have flourished in recent weeks. Experts say it's too early yet to say just how the outbreak will affect the egg and poultry industries, retail product prices and the economy of the states involved. Since domestic egg demand was already strong at the close of 2014, it's not surprising that prices increased.

Dr. Hongwei Xin, Director of the Egg Industry Center at Iowa State University in Ames said it's difficult to predict yet just how the outbreak will impact prices and availability in upcoming weeks.

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"Now, without any further outbreaks of the disease, we'll be able to gather data and assess both the direct and the ripple effect of this flu," Xin says. "Customers are already experiencing a rise in prices in stores. From reports we generate each week, it appears that poultry prices – which more than doubled during the outbreak – are coming down somewhat. Egg prices have risen to about three times the average cost as of May 1, 2015."

Iowa's Egg Industry Center's mission is to "add value to the egg industry by facilitating research and learning for egg producers, processors and consumers through national and international collaboration." On May 8, 2014, the Center released a report, "Avian Influenza and U.S. Egg Prices: A Special Report," which outlines some factors affecting domestic egg prices.

"While the U.S. continues to lose egg supply in this situation, there are factors in play that may also shift the demand for eggs," the report says. "These include both domestic and export market considerations (which) counter the supply impact on price."

The Egg Center report notes that some consumers have turned away from egg prices in light of the flu outbreak. However, others "over-purchased" in anticipation of a temporary shortage.

"In the export market, some countries have stopped imports of eggs from the entire U.S. Other countries have restricted imports from the affected states, but are still importing eggs from states without HPAI (High Path Avian Influenza)," the report states.

"What many people often miss is the market force of the export market that is opportunistic," the report continues. "These markets buy eggs when and where the price is low. This means that they will continue to buy U.S. eggs until the U.S. egg price increases enough for these countries to switch suppliers away from the U.S. As this occurs, these eggs would become available domestically, which would reduce the effect of the lost egg supply.

"These variables don't mean U.S. egg pries won't react; it just means it is impossible to predict when, or by how much," the report says.

Xin notes that the economic impact of the poultry death loss will ripple throughout each state's economy as egg and poultry industry companies and employees work to resume production. In addition, restaurants, grocery stores and numerous other businesses are dealing with rising egg prices.

"Some businesses such as bakeries may search for a replacement product during this rebound period," Xin says. "However, there's really nothing that can replace all the nutritional functions of eggs. They are probably one of the most economical and least expensive sources of wholesome protein compared to other protein products. All shipments of eggs from facilities diagnosed with avian flu were immediately suspended so there's no reason for concern that consuming eggs now will cause human illness. Cooking eggs at the proper temperature will kill any pathogen that might be present."

Although the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has received reports of rare cases of human illness due to avian flu in China, the disease has not been contracted by anyone involved in the U.S. 2015 H5N2 outbreak. U.S. disease control officials don't anticipate human infections to result from H5N2.

"Influenza viruses constantly change and it's possible that this virus could gain the ability to spread easily and sustainably among people, triggering a global outbreak of disease (pandemic)," their website states.

South Dakota State Veterinarian Dr. Dustin Oedekoven says, besides China, bird flu viruses have caused human infections in Europe and some other Asian countries.

"Influenza viruses mutate and this one could potentially adapt to humans, in which case there would be concern for human safety," Oedekoven says. "That's one reason animal health officials and the poultry industry are taking such quick action to manage the virus. We don't want it to become established in the U.S. in either animals or humans. As of now, this particular strain has not been known to affect humans in this country."

Beth S. Thompson, JD, DVM and Assistant Director at the Minnesota Board of Animal Health says the H5N2 outbreak is the most devastating avian flu event she's witnessed in her career. Thompson's state leads in U.S. turkey production and processing.

"Because this is a new introduction of this particular virus, this is the only highly pathogenic avian flu case that I've seen," Thompson says. "Low path avian flu viruses haven't brought about the huge death loss that we've seen with H5N2. Researchers tell us that we may be dealing with this virus again over the next three to five years, depending on wild waterfowl's migratory path and when they're passing through or over the state."

Wild waterfowl, particularly ducks, are carriers of avian flu, although they show no symptoms and don't die from the disease. As the birds fly over a state, they land at lakes, streams and ponds, leaving the virus behind. The virus is then transferred on boots, vehicles or other pathways that connect the waterways with domestic poultry populations.

"This outbreak originated on the west coast, mainly in backyard flocks," Thompson says. "It's believed the wild waterfowl moved from north to south along the coast, shedding the virus as they moved through the Pacific Flyway. The virus then spread to the Mississippi Flyway and was first diagnosed in Minnesota in March."

Iowa's first H5N2 outbreak was diagnosed in April 2015. As of mid-June, 76 total cases were detected in this number one U.S. egg-producing state. Half were turkey production facilities and half were commercial layer operations.

"We haven't had any new outbreaks since June 6," Mike Naig, Deputy Secretary of the Iowa Department of Agriculture, says. "We're cautiously optimistic that we're approaching the end of this outbreak. That will allow us to focus on disposal of birds and look at recovery plans to clean and disinfect sites so facilities can begin thinking about repopulation."

Composting dead birds has been a widespread method of disposing of the carcasses. Iowa facilities have also used incineration and burial of carcasses.

"Composting has been done inside infected buildings to increase environmental control of the disease," Naig says. "We have two landfills that are accepting birds that are being disposed of in a biosecure bag and a third landfill has an incinerator on site and is accepting the ash."

Naig points out that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is doing all they can to identify pathways that led to the infection and biosecurity practices that can reduce the impact of a same/similar future outbreak.

In both Minnesota and Iowa, the impact of the outbreak on backyard poultry seems to have been very minimal with less than 10 reports in either state. Nonetheless, Naig says private poultry producers are taking steps to help contain the disease.

"Individual Iowa poultry producers are doing all they can to minimize contact of their flocks with wild waterfowl," Naig says. "They're also very mindful of places they're visiting and their potential for bringing the disease to their farm."

Because of the large death toll, industries related to poultry and egg production – such as feed and corn companies, trucking operations and those employed in those industries are feeling the economic pain of the outbreak, too.

"Agriculture is a very interconnected industry," Naig says. "Usually that's a good thing. Right now we're seeing the downside of that connectedness."

Some 4 million chickens were involved in Nebraska's H5N2 outbreak and a South Dakota egg-laying facility with 1.3 million chickens was the first and only layer facility in the state to diagnose the infection. Nine South Dakota turkey production facilities also contracted the infection. Oedekoven notes that the disease also caused the greatest loss of poultry to date in his state.

"There's been tremendous loss of income in all the states affected by the influenza," Oedekoven says. "In South Dakota, four turkey growers have already restocked and we're conducting followup tests in the facilities to ensure that the virus has effectively been eliminated. Turkeys take longer to grow than chickens, but the turkey industry may bounce back somewhat faster than the egg laying industry. It takes longer to clean and disinfect laying facilities and chickens have to grow to the age where they lay eggs. It will take time, but the industries are in the first stages of a rebound."

Some questions about recovering from the outbreak that will take time to answer include how long it will take affected facilities to re-start production, how long before they reach full capacity and how long before closed export markets open up again. Migrating habits of wild waterfowl will affect the potential for new outbreaks in fall 2015 and winter 2016.

Oedekoven notes that poultry and egg producers in South Dakota and across the nation are revisiting biosecurity measures to identify ways to improve biosecurity in the event that H5N2 breaks out again.

"When the pork industry experienced the PED (porcine epidemic diarrhea) virus, they learned how to improve biosecurity to reduce spread of that virus," Oedekoven says. "I expect the poultry and egg industry will do the same. We'll be taking home the lessons we've learned and use them to prevent introduction of this or other infectious diseases in the future."

Scientists and researchers – both governmental and private – are working to develop effective vaccination for H5N2, however the mutating nature of viruses in general makes the process extremely challenging.

"Scientists work to predict what human flu viruses will impact the U.S. every winter, however they don't always succeed," Oedekoven says. "It's expected that we will have vaccinations available by fall 2015, but there's a fair amount of uncertainty about their effectiveness if the virus changes or if there's a different avian influenza virus by then."

"This has been an unprecedented animal disease outbreak for Iowa," Naig says. "The good news is that even though egg prices have increased, they're still a great food. Eggs and poultry products on the shelves are safe for consumers. We expect to move through recovery and resume normal operations as quickly as possible. Facilities that were impacted are anxious to return to production."

Online sources for obtaining updated information on the outbreak and recovery activities include:

http://www.bah.state.mn.us – Minnesota avian flu information

http://www.iowagriculture.gov – Iowa avian flu information

Additional details about H5N2's origin and its impact on the U.S. is available at http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/20/5/pdfs/13-1393.pdf.

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