After overseeing the depopulation of 7.5 million turkeys and 42.1 million chickens, USDA knows how deadly the bird flu, also known as highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), can be.
Based on what the agency has learned about the virus and how to stop its spread, USDA released a plan on Friday that it hopes will help poultry producers and others reduce the chances of another outbreak this fall, as wild birds begin to fly from north to south for the winter.
(“Wild birds, particularly dabbling ducks, appear to be a reservoir for these viruses that spread into the Pacific, Central, and Mississippi migratory bird flyways,” USDA said in its Sept. 18 report.)
“We’re obviously hoping for the best, but during the last several months, we have been focusing on planning for the worst,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in an interview with Mike Adams of AgriTalk. (To hear Vilsack’s full comments, listen to AgriTalk at 10:06 a.m. Central Time on Monday, Sept. 21 or on your smartphone via the MyFarmRadio app.)
Hoping for the best, of course, means no outbreaks of the avian flu virus, which infected commercial and backyard flocks. According to USDA, it was the “largest animal health event” in the agency’s history, costing taxpayers an estimated $950 million so far. (The broader economic price tag in the most heavily affected states of Minnesota and Iowa is also considerable.)
As for planning for the worst, it includes stronger biosecurity practices, quicker detection and depopulation of infected flocks, more resources (people, training, and bird disposal) in the case of an outbreak, the development of vaccines, and more surveillance of wild bird populations.
In its report, USDA urged poultry producers to assess and strengthen their biosecurity practices on their farm to guard against future outbreaks.
“Biosecurity is a broad term that can mean anything done to keep diseases out, from the structure of the building (structural biosecurity) to on-farm procedures (operational biosecurity), such as providing boot-washing stations at the entrance to barns and limiting visitor traffic,” the agency noted in its report. “While standard biosecurity efforts practiced by the poultry industry may have been sufficient in the past, evidence of farm-to-farm spread of the (avian influenza) virus strain circulating in the Midwest shows that stricter biosecurity is needed.”
How did the virus spread? It’s hard to know, according to USDA, which is why they want farmers to look closely at their own operation for biosecurity weaknesses.
“While it’s not possible to identify on each affected facility the specific pathway or pathways by which HPAI entered the premises, our epidemiological reports identified potential risk factors for the HPAI virus, such as sharing equipment between farms, entry of small wild birds into barns, proximity to other affected farms, and rendering dead birds,” the report said. “These data underscore the need for producers to implement their own, site-specific biosecurity plans.”