The virus isn’t harmful to humans and, so far, only wild birds and backyard flocks have been infected. But commercial poultry farmers are worried because they have the most to lose.
South Korea and China have imposed total bans on U.S. poultry products while dozens of other countries are limiting their American imports by prohibiting most products from the Pacific Northwest. That’s a big deal because the amount of U.S. chicken alone sold abroad last year exceeded 7 billion pounds. Turkey and eggs are also exported.
“A few of our trading partners have taken what we believe to be unnecessary steps,” said John Clifford, chief veterinary officer for animal health at USDA, which oversees the United States’ role in international avian flu monitoring. “[They] shut off our entire poultry, both live birds as well as products, from the U.S., unless it's cooked.”
There’s an international system in place for countries to notify each other when cases of highly pathogenic avian flu are identified. While that helps veterinary officials stay on top of the virus’ travels, it can have economic consequences.
“It has impacts to the commercial industry and trade that result in millions and millions and millions of dollars,” Clifford said.
Biosecurity can keep birds healthy, which is vital to the $44 billion dollar U.S. poultry and egg industry. Day-to-day precautions like limiting contact between poultry farms and disinfecting the boots of workers as they go in and out of barns have helped central Iowa turkey farmer Noel Thompson and all other commercial poultry producers keep avian flu out of their flocks.
The U.S. is the world’s largest supplier of poultry meat. Thompson brings about 700,000 turkeys to market annually.
“Most people have a turkey sandwich for lunch maybe once or twice a week,” he said. “And that’s where the majority of the turkey meat that’s produced in this country goes.”
Required testing of blood and tissue offers ongoing surveillance for diseases, including flu. Also, and Thompson says this is critical, all his turkeys live indoors. When he started in the business 35 years ago, the turkeys ranged outside.
“We raised them out in the fresh air and it was just really, really wonderful,” he said, “and you’re going to hear some sarcasm right now: What was so nice about it was we had all kinds of wild birds swooping in and eating out of the same feeders that the turkeys were eating out of.”
The wild birds would repay their inadvertent hosts by sharing whatever diseases they were carrying. Say what you will about animal welfare, but moving the birds inside did protect them from those threats.
Many small backyard flocks still have contact with wild birds. In fact, that’s what officials think happened in Washington, Oregon and Idaho where they’ve found the highly contagious form of bird flu. Iowa State University professor K. J. Yoon says these cases in the Pacific Northwest were handled exactly as planned.
“I really want to compliment what Washington state and Oregon state regulatory folks are doing because they have been able to contain the disease in that area without any further spreading,” Yoon said.
Yoon says other countries, such as South Korea, haven’t been as successful.
“They actually broke with the same serotypes of virus and that continues to spread [to] that entire country,” he said.
Trade, of course, is a political issue. But the wild, often migratory, birds that carry avian influenza around the world don’t care about politics any more than they care about international borders. With bird flu circulating in North America, Asia and Europe, it’s those wild birds that worry farmer Noel Thompson, not the temporary trade restrictions.
“Yeah, you pay attention to it,” he said, “but you cannot run a business on the ups and downs of what’s happening in the news today.”
Come summer, however, Thompson will look with trepidation upon the wild birds overhead, imagining the diseases they could be harboring, and fearing that a flu virus could spread from them through the open curtains of a poultry barn.
Update (1/26/2015): Avian influenza was found in a Foster Farms turkey flock in Livingston, Calif., the company announced Monday. The outbreak is thought to be the first infection of this type of bird flu in a commercial flock in the United States.