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Bird flu losses near U.S. record with outbreak on Iowa egg farm

The Agriculture Department has spent $450 million to combat this year’s outbreak of bird flu, but losses among domestic flocks are nearing the record set seven years ago in the largest-ever U.S. animal health emergency. The outbreak has driven up egg prices and tightened the supply of holiday turkeys.

READ MORE: Two states report new avian influenza cases 

"I don’t think you have to worry about being able to carve a Thanksgiving turkey. It’s going to be there,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack earlier this week. Industry analysts say that while turkeys will probably weigh a bit less than usual, there will be enough to go around, although at higher prices than normal.

Some 49 million birds in backyard and commercial flocks, mostly chickens and turkeys, have died from highly pathogenic avian influenza or were culled to prevent its spread, according to USDA data on Thursday. HPAI can wipe out an infected flock quickly, so officials kill all the birds in hopes of preventing the viral disease from spreading.

Roughly 50 million birds in domestic flocks died in a 2014-15 outbreak that has been described as the worst animal disease event in the United States and cost the poultry industry some $3.3 billion. This year, the USDA has committed more than $336 million to indemnity payments to commercial producers for loss of their birds and eggs. It has also spent more than $113 million to kill and dispose of flocks and on virus elimination activities, said an agency spokesperson.

The first major outbreak since April in Iowa, usually No. 1 in egg production, was confirmed on Monday in an egg-laying flock of 1.1 million hens in Wright County, 85 miles north of Des Moines. With the new outbreak, Iowa has lost 14.47 million birds, or about three of every 10 in the nation.

“With HPAI continuing to be a significant threat across the country, this is a difficult and stressful time for poultry farmers and egg producers,” said Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig in a statement. “With [wild bird] migration ongoing, we continue to emphasize the need for strict biosecurity on poultry farms and around backyard flocks to help prevent and limit the spread of this destructive virus.”

In a quirk, HPAI hit the heavier tom turkeys harder than hens this year, so there will be fewer large turkeys for sale in the supermarket, said CoBank analyst Brian Earnest this week. “Given America’s love affair with the Thanksgiving turkey, the short supplies and inelastic holiday demand will send retail turkey prices skyrocketing to record highs this year.” Measured in pounds, turkey production is down 5 percent from last year and could end the year down 9.6 percent, he said.

Bird flu outbreaks usually dissipate during warm weather, but this year infections continued at a low rate through the summer in the West and reappeared in the Midwest after Labor Day. Europe also has seen an unusually persistent and widespread HPAI outbreak this year.

“HPAI is a foreign animal disease that is not usually present in the United States,” the USDA spokesperson said, and the United States retains its trade status as an HPAI-free nation by eradicating the virus whenever it appears. “The USDA uses the term ‘outbreak’ to identify the sudden rise in disease incidence, rather than the term ‘epidemic,’ which implies ongoing community spread. This language reflects the common goal of USDA and U.S. poultry producers to eradicate the disease at each detection to mitigate further spread and retain disease-freedom status.”

Bird flu can be spread by infected migratory waterfowl and by their droppings. It can also be tracked from barn to barn. So animal health officials advise owners to keep wild birds away from their flocks and to employ such precautions as cleaning their footwear each time they enter or leave a bird enclosure.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.

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