It’s looking more likely that the bird flu that’s been sweeping U.S. poultry farms will become the worst in American history.
Iowa said Thursday that another five farms probably have the disease, including a facility with 5.5 million egg hens in Buena Vista County. If the cases are confirmed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it would mean infected flocks of more than 20 million birds. That tops the last major outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza that spread in 1983 and would be the biggest since at least 1924, government data show.
Flocks housing a quarter of Iowa’s laying chickens are now confirmed positive for the virus, or presumed to have it. The state is the top U.S. egg producer. Minnesota, No. 1 for turkeys, also probably has more cases, the state said Thursday. At stake is the roughly $48 billion made annually from domestic poultry and eggs, government figures show. Farms are expanding clean-up efforts and Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton declared a state of emergency as poultry buyers from Europe to Asia placed restrictions on American shipments.
“Once you start getting those kind of numbers, you can start to have an impact” on supplies, Bill Northey, Iowa’s secretary of agriculture, said on a conference call with reporters Thursday. “Of course, we’ve lost some markets overseas, as well, so that probably keeps some of the product home that used to go overseas. That would provide some kind of a counterbalance. But I can’t imagine that, over time, we won’t see some impact.”
Rembrandt Foods, based in Spirit Lake, Iowa, owns the flock of 5.5 million hens that the state reported as probably having bird flu, Jonathan Spurway, the vice president of marketing, said in a telephone interview.
While the disease started popping up in wild birds and waterfowl in December along the Pacific Coast, the rate of reported cases has vastly accelerated since March as commercial flocks in the Midwest began to report infections. On Thursday, Iowa’s Northey estimated that flocks of about 15 million hens in the state were confirmed positive for the virus or were presumed to have it. That’s about 25 percent of the state’s egg-layers.
The disease has mainly affected turkeys and egg hens, while broiler chickens, those that end up on the dinner table, have largely been spared. The U.S. had more than 2 billion chickens and turkeys as of 2012, USDA data show.