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Threat of another avian influenza outbreak looms as fall approaches

The risk of another highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreak remains for poultry farmers as fall approaches across the U.S., according to experts.

As the fall wild migratory bird season starts, the disease has reared its head in the Midwest. It was detected in two commercial turkey flocks in western Minnesota and a hobby flock in Indiana on August 31, according to the Associated Press. 

Before the avian influenza outbreak earlier this year, U.S. poultry product values increased during the pandemic because of tight supplies and consumer demand. However, the outbreak has been an added burden to the supply chain leading to higher prices in stores. Throughout 2022, exports and prices have remained high. 

Exports provide a substantial income for the industry. However, it is also the most vulnerable sector. Last year, total exports of poultry reached $5.9 billion. The value of exports also rose 9% year-over-year through June of this year. 

Export markets have been favorable for U.S. broiler meat in 2022. The current 12-month total is within 1% of the volume reported a year earlier and is expected to best the 2015 volume by more than one billion pounds.

Since 2014, the last significant outbreak, avian influenza restrictions have relaxed globally, says Brian Earnst, lead animal protein economist with CoBank.

“Rather than a blanket ban, trade partners set new restrictions at the county, state, or regional levels because outbreaks had become commonplace globally, and not coincidentally, because politicians across the globe were concerned about rapidly escalating food prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” he says. 

At the outset of the outbreak in 2014, China closed its borders on poultry exports and didn’t open them until 2019. 

In July, the cost of chicken jumped 71% compared to 2021. Shoppers are paying around $1.80 per pound for whole chicken and twice that for boneless chicken breasts, according to the Consumer Price Index. Recently, market values for fresh turkey breast meat have also climbed, $6.50 per pound. 

Since the outbreak in 2014, U.S. poultry production only grew an average of 2% per year from 2016 to 2020.

With feed, labor, and other production costs much higher today, Earnest expects producers to be slower with rebuilding their flocks at this time. 

“A smaller national layer flock means a smaller egg supply in coming months, higher egg prices, and fewer eggs consumed,” says Earnst. 

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