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Bird Flu: 3.8 Million Birds to Be Destroyed -- What Now?

Over the weekend, an egg-laying facility in Osceola County, Iowa, was confirmed positive for the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N2 strain, said Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey on Tuesday afternoon in a press conference to discuss the outbreak. The operation, which has the capacity for 5.3 million layers, housed 3.8 million birds of varying ages at the time of the outbreak.

With 3.5 billion eggs produced last year, Iowa is home to nearly 60 million laying hens. A majority of those birds are in 30 farms with 75,000+ layers. Family farmers in Iowa make egg production their specialty due to the prime proximity to top feed -- corn and soybeans, explains Randy Olson, executive director of the Iowa Egg Council and Iowa Poultry Association.

While many people tend to think of only the shell egg, liquid eggs as well as powdered eggs in baking products are also provided by such farms.

Layers vs. turkeys

Handling a depopulation and disinfection on a layer site is more complex than a turkey site due to product movement (eggs) and the volume of birds. So far with outbreaks in numerous states and turkey farms, around 2 million birds have been depopulated thus far. Compare that to the almost 4 million birds at this one layer operation, and you’ll see the issue.

Cooperation between federal and state agencies, district veterinarians, laboratories, producers, and workers is vital when outbreaks occur. FSIS handles the liquid eggs, APHIS monitors the disease, and the FDA works with the matter of shell eggs.

Biosecurity

An outbreak that kills an entire flock in 48 hours is devastating to a producer and their operation, so producers and workers are heightening every precaution to keep the disease out. Some producers are requiring anyone entering the facility to change clothes and shower on the way in and out.

That being said, officials do not believe it is going from farm to farm. Each outbreak is believed to come from wild birds and waterfowl in the process of migrating. 

“We all wish we knew how it was getting in [to confined facilities],” says Northey. Unfortunately, it’s unknown which path (or paths) that the virus is taking.

It only takes a few virus particles to infect a bird and instigate an outbreak. The virus can spread through feces dropped during a fly-by, feathers falling through the vents, or boots worn to walk through a contaminated area. The struggle is that some wild birds including ducks carry the virus without showing any symptoms.

Effects in the grocery aisle

The industry is much larger than the losses, assures Northey. With some restrictions by international markets, our extra supply will make prices drop. However, the loss in supply due to HPAI pops prices back up. Right now, they’re balancing out.

While we are certainly paying attention to the market aspect, other producers are stepping up to the plate to fill demand, adds Olson.

To date, the H5N2 strain has not been known to infect people either through food consumption or direct contact with the birds. 

In the case of a layer facility, it’s easy to ask if the virus can spread from the hens to the eggs. Cooking would kill off HPAI, but the birds are not allowed to go into the food system. Eggs from such a facility are sent to breakers and pasteurized to be turned into liquid or powdered eggs. Both the FSIS and FDA assure that the HPAI is killed in the pasteurization process. Eggs are not left intact (in the shell) since they can't be pasteurized in that stage; this eliminates the risk to food safety.

Financial impact

Indemnity on the value of the hens isn’t quite as simple as X number of birds equals X dollars. Layers produce eggs for about a year (from 21 to 75 weeks of age). To continuously produce quality eggs, a large laying operation would have birds of all ages in rotation, says Olson. The value of the birds is determined by the age at the time of death. That assessment is currently taking place at the Osceola County facility.

Whether producers and agencies choose composting birds, burial, or another option, a biosecure depopulation of 4 million birds is no small feat. Agencies, cooperatives, and the producer are still working on deciding the best option for the site.

There is indemnity to assist with the cost of cleanup, but it will not pay for the loss of income.

Consequences Beyond the Producer

In light of everything happening so quickly, the focus has been on the farm itself and those in contact with the farm. Yet HPAI outbreaks affect people beyond the devastated operation.

Each layer consumes about 1 bushel of corn each year, so 4 million birds = 4 million bushels. That puts a dent in the local corn market. Soybean meal, veterinary products, and others in the community also take a hit when an operation of this magnitude shuts down temporarily.

Disease dying down?

“We would anticipate that we’re likely to see additional cases in the fall and spring when birds migrate south and back north again,” explains Dr. John Clifford, chief veterinary officer for the USDA and the APHIS deputy administrator for veterinary services. Expect to stop seeing cases in the summer. This virus doesn’t like the heat.

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