In Iowa, one of the largest U.S. egg processors has started to buy foreign supplies for the first time. Elsewhere in the Midwest, a free-range egg producer says it may build automatic car washes to scour vehicles accessing its 60 farms. And nationally, agricultural workers are being urged to get flu shots.
Less than six months after the country’s worst-ever outbreak of avian influenza killed 48 million birds and cost taxpayers almost $1 billion, the American poultry industry is remaking itself to prepare for the likely return of the disease. The virus thrives in chilly weather and is carried across the country by wild birds that are just now beginning to migrate south.
Poultry farmers that incurred losses earlier this year remain rattled because no one knows for sure whether the disease is spread through the air, in feed grain or contact with equipment and people. The next outbreak could exceed the 211 farms affected last spring. The government is preparing to deploy enough resources to handle more than 500 infected flocks, with emergency management teams and veterinarians ready to handle everything from destroying infected birds within 24 hours to cleaning up barns.
“It might return in 12 months or in two years time, and we do not understand the virus enough that we can prevent it,” said Jonathan Spurway, vice president of marketing at egg producer Rembrandt Enterprises Inc. in Spirit Lake, Iowa. “What we’re learning is, you can be 100 percent confident of it returning.”
Rembrandt, the third-largest U.S. producer of table eggs, lost about 8 million laying hens to bird flu in May and says it will take until 2017 to rebuild its flock. In the event of another outbreak, the company plans to draw on a supply chain built up over the past five months that includes egg farms in Spain and Italy. Importing from so far away didn’t make sense until the outbreak of bird flu sent prices surging, Spurway said.
“Customers are willing to buy supply security, and that means they’re willing to pay increased costs to freight eggs from different parts of the world,” he said.
The outbreak also reduced turkey flocks, sending the price of the meat to a record, and led to a plunge in U.S. poultry exports. Sales of eggs to overseas buyers tumbled in July to an 11-year low, government data show.
Already, the federal government has spent more than $950 million on bird flu, mostly to dispose of infected birds and to compensate affected farmers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service intends to test more than 40,000 samples from wild birds to track the disease. The government also plans to stockpile flu vaccines for poultry. To limit the spread of the virus, it says it’s prepared to kill infected flocks within 24 hours, if necessary even suffocating afflicted birds by shutting off ventilation in barns. A faster response the next time around could reduce farmer losses by 37 percent and cut insurance payouts by 78 percent, the USDA estimates.
Springdale, Arkansas-based Tyson Foods Inc., the largest U.S. chicken processor, said it has stepped up biosecurity measures, limiting visitors and disinfecting trucks upon arrival at farms, as well as testing all its birds before they leave. Cargill Inc., one of the largest U.S. turkey processors, said it has invested in similar protocols.
Egg Innovations, a free-range producer with 1.2 million hens across five Midwest states, didn’t have a single case of bird flu on its farms this spring. Still, it wants permanent car washes to disinfect trucks going in and out of its facilities and is spending $20,000 a week to move eggs on disposable paper trays rather than reusable plastic ones that might spread infection, company owner John Brunnquell said in an interview.
The list of precautions goes on. People now shower on their way in and out of all Rembrandt’s facilities, not just its biggest ones. S&R Egg Farm Inc. in Whitewater, Wisconsin, built 10-foot-high (3-meter) fences with barbed wire around sites housing 3 million laying hens so that nothing on the ground can get in, Chief Financial Officer Dan Gorecki said. Center Fresh Group, an Iowa egg producer, says it’s installing sonic cannons to keep wild birds away.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta says there’s a low risk of the general public contracting bird flu. All the same, poultry workers and other bird handlers should get a seasonal flu shot, according to a USDA directive first issued in 2006.
People who do catch bird flu from a bird don’t normally pass it to other humans. None of the three avian flu strains detected by the USDA during the spring outbreak are the same as one found in Asia, Europe and Africa that can infect humans.
However, in cases where someone is simultaneously sick with both human influenza and the avian variety, there’s a very slim chance the viruses will combine into a new, deadly and contagious form, said Frank Welch, medical director for community preparedness at Louisiana’s Office of Public Health. That’s happened four times in the last century, including the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918 that infected a third of the world’s human population, killing 50 million.
“This is what causes pandemics,” Welch said. “It’s an incredibly rare set of circumstances, but it certainly has happened.”