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Avian Flu - What I Want You to Know
It’s been over four months since the last case of highly-pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) hit Minnesota’s poultry farmers. Since that time, our office (the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association) has been, in many ways, busier than it was during the crisis when our goal was to make sure our growers had the information they needed each day.
Over the summer, we focused on looking ahead to a future that may (or may not) contain further outbreaks of HPAI. What would this mean? How do we best get prepared? What did we do right during the first outbreak and what can we do better?
Poultry farmers did the same, reviewing their own biosecurity plans for their farms and making sure their level of preparedness was top-notch – and generally-speaking, unprecedented. This is, after all, a foreign animal disease we’re dealing with that has serious financial consequences for farmers and huge trade implications for the U.S.
Now that we’re in the midst of the fall migratory season in Minnesota, here are a few things I want you to know about avian flu:
1) For farmers directly impacted by avian flu in the spring, the emotional effects remain. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It was a nightmare for farmers to watch their flocks succumb to a virus so quickly, with nothing they could do about hundreds of birds dying within hours. And for those who might say so casually that most of the farms impacted were large, “factory farms” and this is all just business, I wish I could tell them about the worry, the tears, the stress, the high level of anxiety. This was very much not just business, and I saw this firsthand.
2) The media is still watching and still calling. In April and much of May, I handled an average of a dozen media requests each and every day – some days it was more than that. Nowadays, the calls still come, although it’s probably more like five to six a week and usually from reporters who have been following this story long-term. What they don’t always understand is that it is STILL tough for me to find farmers willing to be interviewed – not because they don’t want to talk to a reporter but mainly because they are exhausted from talking about avian flu all the time. And to the reporter who left a message with me last week, telling me he thought it was strange he hadn’t heard from me in a while, I say – that’s a good thing at this point! (In other words, no news is truly good news.)
3) You’ll still get your turkey for Thanksgiving. I can’t tell you how many times our office gets asked this question. Will there be enough turkeys for Thanksgiving? The short answer is yes. The long answer: You may not find as many of the 20+ pound turkeys in the supermarkets this year, but if you typically buy a 12- to 14-pound turkey (and most consumers do), you’ll be fine. As for price, it is true that wholesale turkey prices are higher right now, but we still expect supermarkets to use turkey as a loss leader in November, meaning they will probably continue to charge slightly lower prices for the turkey to lure customers in to buy other items for the Thanksgiving meal.
4) We don’t know if avian flu will come back this fall. Despite our best efforts to analyze the spring outbreak and even with the best avian flu experts studying what’s been happening, we truly do not know with any type of certainty if HPAI will come back this fall. Our farmers are living with this particular stress as best they can, and it helps that we feel we are better prepared now to deal with any future introductions of HPAI that might occur. We’ve been through the worst of this once – we learned a few things about our response effort – and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure our birds stay safe and healthy, and our farmers can get on with what they do best – raise poultry.