On February 14, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) confirmed the presence of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), or bird flu, in birds in two states—a flock of commercial broiler chickens in Fulton County, Ky., and a backyard flock (non-poultry) in Fauquier County, Va. In response, more than 100,000 birds have been culled in an effort to contain the spread.
“It’s definitely considered a period of high risk now that we have a confirmed case of highly pathogenic avian influenza in the commercial poultry industry,” Dr. Denise Heard, vice president of research for the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, said in a statement. “I feel positive that we can tackle this situation better and I have my fingers crossed that this will be an isolated case; however, I would [say to] hope for the best and be prepared for the worst.”
Over the course of the following nine days, APHIS confirmed additional cases of the disease in Dubois County, Ind.; New Castle County, Del.; Webster County, Ken.; Suffolk County, N.Y.; and Knox County, Maine. Similarly, tens of thousands of turkeys and chickens have been culled to eliminate the virus.
Catie Beauchamp, PhD, a microbiologist and vice president of food science, quality, and safety at ButcherBox in Greeley, Colo., says that outbreaks of bird flu occur due to the migratory flight pattern of water fowl and that it has a cycle similar to the seasonal flu, with different strains and transmission rates that change from year to year. “Bird flu is primarily an animal health issue,” she says. “Infected animals do not enter the food supply, [and] therefore HPAI is not a food safety issue. The risk to human health is very low, as human-to-human transmission is very low. Poultry workers are the most at risk, but even then, the risk is still low.”
She noted that bird flu can’t be eradicated because it is a virus carried by wild, migrating birds.
The response, says Dr. Beauchamp, involves robust monitoring, testing, and transmission mitigation. “Biosecurity measures are already in place,” she adds, “and once the risk is heightened in an area, industry partners look for any changes in animal behavior to increase the monitoring and testing—whether that’s decreased water intake, lack of appetite, etc.”
One only needs to look back seven years to 2015 to see how significant a problem the bird flu can be. A large spread of the virus resulted in the culling of 50 million birds across 15 states, with a cost of almost $1 billion to the federal government. “Since the 2015 outbreak, APHIS has been very purposeful about the preventive measures they take in seeking out and testing wild flocks in high-risk areas,” Dr. Beauchamp says. “This is an event that, in some cases, is expected, so being prepared is key,” adding that the learnings from the 2015 outbreak have helped the industry to be better prepared.
The 2015 outbreak also caused prices for eggs and turkey to increase substantially, with eggs costing up to 61% more and boneless, skinless turkey breasts increasing as much as 75%.
At the current frequency and scale, Dr. Beauchamp notes that these bird flu confirmations won’t impact supply in a significant way that will impact cost, and that widespread shortages will likely not occur. However, she notes that the outbreak will put pressure on an industry that is already stressed due to worker shortages and supply chain challenges from the pandemic.
“There is a short replenishment cycle for birds, so even if there are flocks that have to be depopulated, producers can catch up more quickly,” she adds. “It would take extreme depopulation to impact the consumer and, from an industry standpoint, we do not expect to see the fallout we saw in 2015.” She adds that producers that have prepared their systems to be able to identify and confirm cases quickly, depopulate as needed, and move on will have limited hurdles compared with those who are not prepared from a biosecurity standpoint.