Determined to avoid a repeat of the nation’s worst-ever avian-influenza outbreak, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is stockpiling up to 500 million doses of a new vaccine -- but many in the $48 billion poultry industry don’t want it.
While turkey farmers hit hard by the most-recent outbreak support the shots, chicken producers say vaccinating even a portion of their flocks would prompt foreign buyers to ban imports. Last year, commercial operations in 15 states were affected by the disease, claiming 50 million birds mostly from egg-laying operations and costing the industry $3.3 billion.
“As soon as you vaccinate any bird, you are telling the world bird flu is endemic, and countries are going to stop buying from us, some of them for years,” said Ashley Peterson, science and technology vice president for the National Chicken Council.
U.S. poultry producers remain on edge after 67 cases of the highly contagious form of avian influenza were found in France. The U.S. outbreak, which ended in June, led to record egg prices and imports and cut turkey supplies for the Thanksgiving holiday. Most of the cases were in Minnesota, the biggest turkey-producing state, and Iowa, the biggest egg producer. Georgia, the top chicken-meat producer, was unaffected.
To prevent a recurrence on American farms, producers are adding car washes to keep the virus from spreading via vehicles and enclosing spaces to guard against airborne infection from wild birds. But that’s not enough to deter U.S. investment in immunizations.
48 Million Doses
The vaccine search began in March as government and industry realized the scope of the problem. Harrisvaccines Inc. of Ames, Iowa, and Ceva Sante Animale SA of Libourne, France, received contracts in October to produce vaccines. The initial orders for 48 million doses from each company cost $12 million.
The U.S. government is preparing to deploy enough staff and other resources to handle about 500 infected flocks, more than double the number seen in 2015. Agency officials have also traveled to meet their counterparts in countries including China, Japan and South Korea to argue that measures the USDA might take shouldn’t lead to trade bans.
Since July, the USDA has tested more than 25,000 samples for the virus in wild birds as part of its surveillance and biosecurity efforts, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. While the USDA isn’t detailing how vaccines would be administered in an outbreak, a September document from its Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service said shots would only be given with the approval of each state’s top veterinarian, and then only to commercial poultry in areas where disease was spreading rapidly.
Vaccinating flocks would create the impression in importing countries that U.S. chicken and turkeys aren’t safe, increasing the risk of trade bans, said John Glisson, vice president of research for the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association in Tucker, Georgia.
Owners of egg-laying hens, which live longer than chickens and turkeys raised for their meat, oppose vaccine programs for another reason: They don’t want the hassle and cost of administering booster shots.
Unlike broiler chickens, which are raised for their meat and are slaughtered by eight weeks of age, or turkeys, which live to 20 weeks, egg-laying chickens can live for two years. Repeatedly taking aging birds out of their cages for booster shots “is quite a task in manpower and expense and risks injuring the birds,” Glisson said.
Although not a single large-scale broiler operation was affected, the industry still took a trade hit, said Tom Super, a spokesman for the Washington-based National Chicken Council. Producers lost $910 million -- 22 percent of exports -- when 17 countries including China, Russia and South Korea limited or shut their borders to U.S. birds.
“We’re already losing exports to bans put in place,” Super said. “A vaccine opens that wound up further.”
Opposition to the USDA’s plan isn’t unanimous. Turkey producers want a vaccine, and trade concerns may be exaggerated, said Joel Brandenberger, president of the National Turkey Federation in Washington.
“The world recognizes that the science has changed and that vaccines can be used effectively” to eradicate virus, he said.
To avoid conflicts in an outbreak, groups need to work out their approach to a vaccine sooner rather than later, and the government needs to make potential trade impacts as clear as possible, said Les Sims, a consultant with Asia Pacific Veterinary Information Service in Australia.
Otherwise “there will be strong resistance to its use by those sectors otherwise unaffected” when flu hits its first farms, Sims said. The vaccines themselves, he said, remain a viable option. “Hopefully you won’t need it, but better to have the option available.”