The biggest U.S. outbreak of avian influenza has poultry producers tightening security procedures to avoid trade disruptions.
China halted U.S. poultry imports in January, while Mexico, the European Union and other trade partners have stopped buying the meat from Minnesota, Missouri and Arkansas, where outbreaks of the disease have been reported. Tyson Foods Inc. and Sanderson Farms Inc. are reinforcing precautions.
“We have biosecurity measures in place to protect our chickens from disease, including avian influenza,” Worth Sparkman, a spokesman for Tyson, the biggest U.S. poultry producer, said, adding the company has “no flocks” with the disease. “We have heightened those measures in states where there are reported cases.”
The disease spread this month after surfacing on a migratory route that follows the Mississippi River, and along the Central Flyway over the Great Plains. A winter outbreak was contained in poultry in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California, where a case was confirmed in a turkey flock Jan. 23, the first instance of highly pathogenic avian influenza in commercial poultry since 2004. It’s the biggest outbreak since 1997, when the disease first infected humans.
Tyson fell as much as 6.1 percent in New York trading on March 11, after reports surfaced of a case of the H5N2 avian influenza in Arkansas, the company’s home state. Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., the second-biggest U.S. chicken producer, tumbled as much as 9 percent. Shares of both producers rose Monday.
“We have not experienced avian influenza in any of our flocks,” said Mike Cockrell, chief financial officer for Sanderson Farms in Laurel, Mississippi. “We have a fairly heightened level of biosecurity ongoing all the time, whether or not there’s highly pathogenic avian influenza in the neighborhood or not. We are in a heightened state of alert.”
So far, commercial chicken production hasn’t slowed, according to the National Chicken Council in Washington. International response has been limited, in part on concern that trading partners could retaliate should they report outbreaks later, said Gary Blumenthal, president of World Perspectives Inc., an agriculture consultancy in Washington.
“Most countries appear to be taking a more measured approach,” Blumenthal said in an interview.
Anti-flu protocols are well-established. “You completely destroy the flock, you sanitize, and you don’t rebuild until you’ve confirmed the virus is gone,” he said.
At Tyson-contracted farms, the company requires that operators move birds of the same age as one flock to limit mingling. Visitors must wear protective clothes and vehicle tires must be disinfected.
Highly pathogenic avian influenza is highly contagious among birds. None of the viruses have been found in humans, and aren’t expected to become a public-health risk, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service said in a statement on its website.