U.S. Government responds quickly after AVIAN FLU detected in INDIANA FLOCK
By Mehmood Ali
Poultry is one of the most popular forms of protein in the American diet, regularly making appearances on our tables, whether it’s a fluffy omelet for breakfast, a nice turkey sandwich for lunch or a perfectly roasted chicken for dinner. We even have entire holidays where eating poultry is an integral part of the celebration. Americans consume an average of 1.3 billion chicken wings on Super Bowl Sunday and 46 million turkeys for Thanksgiving Dinner. However, in 2015, it looked like America would have to end its love affair with U.S. raised poultry, as the poultry industry faced the largest animalhealth emergency in U.S. history.
US poultry and egg farmers were caught off guard in the summer of 2015 as the Avian flu swept through the Midwest, leaving nearly 50 million birds dead in its wake. Avian Flu or Bird flu is a type of influenza that is hosted by birds, but can also be harmful to many species of animals including birds, pigs, horses, whales and even humans. The disease was first identified in Italy in the early 1900s, and by 1997 a strain of H5N1 was identified as the cause. Today, the H5N2 strain is what sent most of the Midwest into a state of panic.
The highly pathogenic virus spreads to healthy birds after they come in contact with an infected bird or indirectly after coming in contact with contaminated farm equipment. The virus is found in the nostrils, eyes, mouth and droppings of an infected bird and can be transmitted to humans through their feathers, intestines, blood and droppings. This makes anyone in charge of slaughtering birds prior to sale susceptible to the infection, which can be fatal.
The virus can also survive for quite some time if conditions are favorable, making it easy to catch a ride on a poultry transportation truck and infect a whole new flock. By the end of June 2015, in response to the rapid outbreak of the virus, a state of emergency was declared in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Between December of 2015 and June the next year, there were 223 reports of infected flocks throughout the three states.
Annually, the U.S. produces almost 9 billion meat chickens, 360 million laying hens and 240 million turkeys. The rapid spread of the virus meant having to kill millions of birds that would have been sold, making poultry farmers bear the brunt of the economic blow. In addition to killing off livestock, the outbreak scared off some of the largest purchasers of exported poultry products. China and South Korea import $428.5 million worth of poultry each year, but after the outbreak they imposed a ban on all U.S. chicken. Shortly thereafter, forty other countries imposed their own restrictions on U.S. raised poultry.
In response to the new scarcity of poultry products, the laws of supply and demand came in to play and egg prices reached a record high. Oddly enough, the avian flu disproportionally affects laying hens. While foreign countries were imposing bans on U.S. poultry, we were still producing roughly the same amount of meat chickens, tipping the scales toward the consumer. This caused the price of poultry meat to take a nosedive, while simultaneously causing the price of eggs to skyrocket. While the changes in pricing may have been good for consumers, the poultry producers took a near devastating blow, showing a loss of $957 million in profits in Iowa alone. In total, officials say the 2015 outbreak cost the poultry industry $3.3 billion.
Thankfully, the virus doesn’t thrive in the heat, so as the summer wore on and temperatures kept rising, reports of the virus slowed and it seemed that the epidemic was finally behind us. However, USDA officials feared that the reoccurrence of the virus was “highly probable” in the fall when temperatures begin to cool back down. That fear became a reality in mid-January of 2016 when 10 cases of the virus were confirmed in commercial flocks in Indiana. This time, the avian flu reared its ugly head in the form of a strain never before seen in the country, H7N8.
The government was quick to spring into action, hoping to contain the outbreak and avoid mistakes made last year. According to T.J. Myers, associate deputy administrator at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal & Plant Inspection Service, the biggest mistake made during the outbreak of 2015 was taking far too long to depopulate the affected flocks.
“We are hopeful that as we respond very quickly to this virus that we can get it contained and hopefully not see an extensive outbreak like we did last year,” Myers said in an interview on January 18, three days after the first case of avian flu was confirmed.
This time, they were quick to quarantine the area with affected flocks, and begin depopulating. Flocks of birds were tested and it was found that only the turkeys tested positive for the virus while the chickens were negative. Regardless, both chickens and turkeys were euthanized to err on the side of caution. In all, 258,325 turkeys and 156,178 chickens were destroyed.
“In the poultry business, there’s a positive determination that this new strain not have any chance at proving what it might be able to do,” said Keith Williams, a spokesman for the National Turkey Federation, in an interview with Reuters News Service.
According to Denise Derrer of the Indiana Board of Animal Health, they’re optimistic that the disease has been contained, but they’re still testing commercial flocks on a daily basis to ensure that Indiana’s flocks will make it through the last leg of winter. While the outbreak of 2015 was devastating, it taught government officials tough lessons on how to respond to the Avian flu crisis.