WASHINGTON, April 22, 2015 – The poultry industry is keeping a watchful eye on the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) outbreak across the Pacific, Central and Mississippi flyways, which experts suggest may get worse before it gets better.

“The virus doesn’t like heat,” explained USDA’s Chief Veterinary Officer Dr. John Clifford on a call with reporters Tuesday. He said temperatures need to move above the 60-70 degree range before the number of outbreaks will likely decline. The virus does not pose a threat to humans or the food supply.

The H5N2 strain of avian influenza was first confirmed in January in the Pacific Northwest and has since spread to millions of birds in Wisconsin, South Dakota, North Dakota, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Minnesota and this week, to Iowa, the nation’s top egg-producing state.

Thus far, the disease has primarily affected turkey flocks, and 31 of the 61 confirmed cases of H5N2 have been in Minnesota, the nation’s top turkey state. The disease has affected over 2 million turkeys since January, accounting for about 1 percent of the 235,000,000 turkeys produced annually. Hormel Foods announced that flu-related bird losses will put pressure on their production and profits.

The chicken industry had been far better off until Monday, when USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) reported the disease had been confirmed in an egg-laying operation consisting of 3.8 million laying hens in Osceola County, Iowa - owned by Sonstegard Foods Co., based in Sioux Falls, S.D. That represents about 1.5 percent of the nation’s laying hens.

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey says the poultry losses has been devastating for owners who take so much pride in caring for their birds. “If this happens on your farm, it’s a pretty tough situation,” he explained. “And even growers who aren’t impacted directly –like those with broilers – could see export markets impacted.”

Wisconsin has even declared a state of emergency to deal with its three confirmed instances of the disease, allowing the National Guard to aid in the fight against the virus.

While the quick spread of the disease and its propensity to follow migratory patterns has producers in affected flyways on alert, those outside of the H5N2’a current path are relying on heightened biosecurity measures to protect their flocks. Terri Wolf-King of Cornerstone Farms in Hurlock, Maryland, said after the last avian influenza outbreak in 2004, she made permanent improvements to the biosecurity on her operation.

“I think we really ramped it up the last time AI was in this area and never brought it back down,” she told reporters and officials at an industry event in Eastern Maryland, adding that her farm, with two chicken houses holding about 40,000 birds, has been “very secure” since that time.

“There was a time probably when I wouldn’t have been as concerned about it, but my livelihood depends on not getting AI or (laryngotracheitis) or any of those other diseases so we have upped the biosecurity over the last seven or eight years.”

For those states where an outbreak has occurred, a reaction plan was likely already in place, having been established about 15 years ago, according to John Glisson, vice president of research for the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association. He said HPAI was added to the National Poultry Improvement Plan, a coalition of industry, the states and federal government, several years ago. Now, he said in an interview with Agri-Pulse, a response to an HPAI outbreak simply involves following a prescribed plan.

“Nobody’s having to figure out how to do this; we know how to do this, we just hope we never would have to do it,” Glisson said. “It’s a tragic situation, but the poultry industry’s pretty well prepared for it.”

Glisson used the example of his native Georgia, where each county has specific plans for quarantines, methods of euthanasia, carcass disposal, and other components of the response.

The virus spreads through the feces of migratory birds and doesn’t appear to be spreading farm-to-farm, thanks to increased biosecurity measures such as protective clothing and more thorough cleaning of trucks and equipment, Glisson said. The disease has yet to jump to the Atlantic flyway, which passes through four of the nation’s top-10 states for broiler production. In the meantime, Glisson said the industry will be working hard to enforce current safety measures until the end of this migratory season and hope a repeat of the disease’s spread won’t happen when the birds fly south for the winter.

“We hope (migratory birds will) go to their summer nesting grounds, all of them will become infected – it doesn’t hurt them – they’ll produce an immune response to it, stop shedding the virus, and then fly back South in the fall,” Glisson said. “That’s what we hope, but we don’t know that.”



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