This spring marked the worst animal disease outbreak in U.S. history regardless of species when the avian flu spread throughout the country like a tsunami. According to the USDA, the federal government could spend upwards of $191 million to pay turkey and chicken farmers for birds lost to the epidemic and another $400 million in cleanup costs.
Northwest Iowa was one of the worst hit regions. According to the Iowa Turkey Federation 34 million birds and 77 out of Iowa’s 135 turkey operations were affected. The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF) commissioned a study, “Economic Impact of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) on Poultry in Iowa,” that found the avian flu outbreak will cost nearly $425 million in lost income and 8,500 lost jobs. In addition, suppliers and vendors took another $139 million hit.
The big question in the wake of the outbreak: With biosecurity measures in place, how did this happen?
Brad Moline is a fourth generation producer living near Manson, Iowa. His family has dabbled in all areas of turkey production for 91 years, with their first farm dating back to 1924. Today they grow nearly 155,000 turkeys a year. The finished turkeys are delivered to Iowa-based West Liberty Foods where they are processed and sold to well-known chains such as Subway and Jimmy Johns and sold in Walmart and Costco stores.
Moline and his family lost their entire flock of turkeys, in all barns, throughout all of their sites in May. His turkeys tested positive on Tuesday, May 19 and by Saturday May 23, he and his family began depopulating the entire farm. During this time, Moline says it was vitally important to assure their customers that all birds being delivered to processing plants were healthy and consumers that all meat sold in stores was safe.
At this time, they had around 7,000 turkeys at 14 weeks old. “Basically the avian flu hit us like a tidal wave,” says Moline. His finishing barn was hit first and spread very rapidly.
On Monday night his dad found one or two dead birds, by the next morning 90 had died. Suspecting avian flu since it was moving in the area, Moline took a swab and drove it to Iowa State University himself. By that night, avian flu was confirmed and he contacted the USDA. When depopulation began, only a few hundred birds were left.
Moline’s farm has biosecurity measures in place, including never parking vehicles near a barn and changing boots prior to entering. Once the flu was identified in the area, they stepped up protocols; Moline’s entire team wore dedicated coveralls and clothing for each barn. But for him, and many other producers, these extra measures were too late.
While the USDA is getting closer to the answer of how this happened, Moline says they still do not know how the avian flu was brought to his farm. More than likely, he says, it was from wild birds such as sparrows, which are able to enter barns through the ventilation systems. Another likely candidate was the wind.
“We don’t have the smoking gun of what went wrong and what we have to fix and that’s been the most frustrating part of this disease,” explains Moline who noted that USDA has done a good job on working with him on biosecurity. After undergoing an extensive eradication program lasting several weeks, he has been able to repopulate his farm.
However, Moline says, more biosurveillance is needed especially in the spring and fall. He is calling for more testing of wild birds as well as more testing of turkey flocks. In addition, more education among producers and hunters is needed, says Moline, because wild ducks and geese can be carriers and hunters could inadvertently track the disease on their boots or clothes into grocery stores.
“As for future risk, the entire industry is reviewing all of their biosecurity protocols, but since about 16 percent of all wild water fowl are carries of avian influenza, the potential for exposure is difficult to eliminate,” says Dave Miller, director of research and commodity services, IFBF. “Farms are working to minimize contact of their birds with wild birds, but it is very difficult to keep out sparrows, starlings, and everything that migrates over these barns.”
Moline believes the USDA needs to develop a faster protocol for depopulation in order to contain the virus. “The protocol now is if you have it you have to kill the whole farm. But in listening to the USDA, if they do more biosurveillance and testing and there is faster depopulation, you may be able to contain it to a single barn or a single area of the farm,” says Moline.
Other measures are also in place. For example, the vaccine for turkeys is expected to be ready this fall or spring; there is already a vaccine for chickens. Moline cautions, though, that vaccinating should only be used a tool, not as a precaution.
But would these enhanced biosecurity actions be safe? Moline says absolutely.
The avian flu is not transferred to humans in any form and is not transferred to meat, and all birds are tested before sent to market. Moline explains that two weeks before going to market, turkeys have blood samples looking for different diseases. He also conducts a fat sample around 10 days before market to double check for disease and any traces of antibiotics. (It should be noted there are no antibiotics on any meat sold in stores.)
When Moline was asked what information he wanted processors and consumers to know, he stressed that biosecurity measures are in place and continually evolving to be more effective. He also stressed that turkey meat is safe.
“The birds are tested twice so the meat is completely clean and safe,” Moline says. “All the birds were killed so they never reached processing plants. There was no chance any infected birds made it to consumers.”
Gretta Irwin, executive director and home economist for the Iowa Turkey Federation says they are looking closely at biosecurity measures and working directly with turkey producers along with Iowa State University to help answer questions and prepare for an outbreak should it happen again. It is hoped that with ongoing research and improved biosurveillance measures put into place if an avian flu outbreak reoccurs, economic loses are also contained.