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Cost of fighting bird flu outbreaks tops $670 million

So far, the USDA has spent more than $670 million to contain highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) and to indemnify owners for their losses, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service told Ag Insider. Outlays included more $414 million in compensation for “depopulated” birds and eggs, $142 million to cull flocks, dispose of dead birds and activities to kill the virus and $114 million in personnel, state agreements and field costs.

The current outbreak is the worst ever in terms of the number of birds infected by HPAI or culled to prevent its spread. Bird flu spreads quickly and has a high mortality rate, so it is standard procedure for animal health officials to kill all the birds when tests confirm a flock is infected.

Egg prices fell sharply after the New Year holiday — down by more than $2 a dozen at wholesale in an East Coast market — but are trending upward on New York and Midwest markets. Demand for eggs traditionally rises ahead of Easter and so do prices.

“Consumer demand for shell eggs improved slightly into March but shoppers are finding few price breaks in the dairy case, which is tempering shell egg movement,” said the USDA’s weekly Egg Markets Overview. “Marketers are eyeing Easter demand cautiously this year over concerns about the impact of current price levels on holiday demand patterns.”

The USDA report said the price of a dozen Large white eggs to retailers in New York rose by 35 cents and the price of a dozen Large eggs delivered to warehouses in the Midwest rose by 16 cents in the past week.

Egg production in January was 6% smaller than a year earlier, the latest in a string of months in which bird flu reduced the number of egg-laying hens and egg production. The U.S. flock was 5% smaller than in January 2022. The first report of HPAI in a commercial flock was a turkey farm with 29,000 birds in southwestern Indiana on Feb. 2, 2022.

Vaccines are an option that is under research, said a USDA spokesperson. “First and foremost, however, we are pursuing collaborative efforts with poultry farmers and companies on education, training and implementation of comprehensive biosecurity measures. Biosecurity is the best and most prudent approach we have to mitigate the impact of the disease today.”

To reduce the chance of disease, the USDA recommends steps such as limiting visitors, wearing a separate set of clothes in poultry buildings, cleaning footwear when leaving a building, cleaning and disinfecting equipment that moves from building to building, and monitoring flocks for signs of disease. “Biosecurity refers to everything people do to keep diseases … away from birds, people and property,” says a USDA primer.

Iowa, the No. 1 egg state, has lost nearly 16 million birds — mostly laying hens —  in the current outbreak. There have been 20 outbreaks nationwide that affected more than 1 million birds. Five were in Iowa, including the two largest in the country, which affected egg-laying flocks of 5.35 million hens and 5 million hens during March 2022.

Thirteen outbreaks have been confirmed in early March, three in commercial flocks and 10 in backyard flocks.

The USDA’s running summary of HPAI incidents is available here.

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

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