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Egg prices spike as bird flu outbreaks reach two-month mark

Americans will not run out of eggs in the ongoing outbreak of bird flu, the worst since 2015, says Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Some 4% of the U.S. layer flock has died in the two months since the first confirmation of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) on February 8.

Egg-laying hens account for two of every three birds that have died of HPAI or in culling of infected flocks. “High path” bird flu can wipe out a flock quickly, so agricultural officials are quick to cull flocks in hopes of preventing the viral disease from spreading.

Often volatile, egg prices surged by 52% during the outbreaks. Egg demand traditionally rises ahead of Easter, which is April 17 this year.

The country could emerge from the outbreaks with “significantly less” damage than the 2014-15 epidemic, said Vilsack earlier this week, pointing to improved biosecurity on poultry farms. He said he did not expect significant egg shortages. More than 50 million birds, mostly chickens and turkeys, including 12% of the nation’s laying hens died in the 2014-15 epidemic. Some grocery stores ran low on eggs during the spring of 2015.

“Because HPAI is being spread by migrating wild birds, it is difficult to predict what will happen over the next couple months,” said a spokesman for USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. “The virus is very prevalent in the environment in wild birds so flock owners need to practice strong biosecurity.”

The last of the 211 confirmed cases of HPAI in commercial flocks during the 2014-15 epidemic was on June 16, 2015. So far this year, bird flu has been detected in roughly 100 commercial flocks.

Iowa, the No. 1 egg state, accounted for 12.7 million of the 16.8 million layers that have died in this year’s outbreaks, according to USDA data. Some 3.15 million turkeys have died; 1.28 million in South Dakota and 1.06 million in Minnesota. In addition, 2.1 million broiler chickens have died. Also on USDA’s list were 830,239 pullets — young hens yet to lay eggs — and two flocks of “commercial poultry” holding 1.2 million birds. The U.S. total was 24.5 million birds in domestic flocks.

To reduce the risk of HPAI, the USDA suggests steps such as limiting the number of people in contact with a flock and keeping the flock away from wild birds and their droppings. The disease also can be spread by contaminated equipment and clothing, so precautions are recommended such as foot baths to disinfect boots or changing clothes when moving from barn to barn.

“There is little evidence to suggest HPAI is being spread from farm to farm,” said the APHIS spokesman. “The current outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) is spreading across the country primarily due to the migration of wild birds.”

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