The current outbreak of bird flu has cost the government an estimated $661 million and added to the pain of consumers in grocery stores after more than 58 million birds were culled to limit the spread of the virus.
In addition to the cost of the government’s response and rising prices for eggs, chicken and turkey, farmers raising those animals have easily lost more than $1 billion, an agricultural economist said, though no one has yet calculated. the total cost to the industry.
The bad news is that with the outbreak entering its second year and the spring migratory season approaching, there is no end in sight. And there’s little farmers can do beyond the steps they’ve already taken to try to keep the virus at bay.
Unlike previous years, the virus that causes highly pathogenic avian influenza found a way to survive last summer’s heat, prompting a surge in reported cases in the fall.
The outbreak is already more widespread than the last major bird flu outbreak in 2015, but it hasn’t yet been as costly, in part because government and industry have applied lessons learned eight years ago.
“The past year has been devastating for the turkey industry as we experienced, unequivocally, the worst HPAI (highly pathogenic avian influenza) outbreak in the history of the industry,” said Shelby Newman, spokesperson for the National Turkey Federation.
In the current outbreak, 58.4 million birds have been culled on more than 300 commercial farms in 47 states. This is because whenever the virus is detected, the entire herd on that farm, which can number in the millions, must be culled to limit the spread of the disease. Only Hawaii, Louisiana and West Virginia have yet to report a bird flu case. Iowa, the nation’s largest egg producer, leads the country with nearly 16 million birds culled.
In 2015, about 50 million chickens and turkeys were culled on more than 200 farms in 15 states.
That earlier outbreak remains the costliest animal health disaster in United States history. The federal government spent nearly a billion dollars dealing with infected birds, cleaning barns, and compensating farmers. It cost the industry an estimated $3 billion as farmers incurred additional costs and lost money when they did not have birds on their farms.
These bills continue to mount this year as cases spread, and that includes the cost to consumers.
Egg prices soared to $4.82 a dozen in January from $1.93 a year earlier, according to the latest government figures. That increase prompted calls for a price gouging investigation, though the industry maintains that the combination of bird flu and significantly higher costs for food, fuel and labor is driving up prices.
The price of a pound of chicken breast was $4.32 in January. That’s slightly less than last fall when the price peaked at $4.75, but it’s significantly higher than the year before when chicken breasts sold for $3.73 a pound.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t track retail turkey prices the same way as part of its inflation data, but the Department of Agriculture says the wholesale turkey price passed $1.29 a pound last January, just before before the avian flu outbreak began, at $1.72 per pound. last month.
The number of birds culled peaked last spring at nearly 21 million in March, leaving farmers wary of what they face in the coming months. University of Georgia virus researcher David Stallknecht said there’s some hope this spring won’t be too bad because turkeys and chickens may have developed some immunity to the virus.
The key problem with bird flu is that wild birds easily transmit the highly contagious virus through their droppings and nasal secretions. Despite the best efforts of farmers, it is difficult to keep the virus at bay.
Farmers have gone all out by requiring workers to shower and change before entering barns, sanitizing trucks entering a farm, and investing in separate tool kits for each barn. Some farms have even improved barn ventilation and installed laser systems to deter wild birds from congregating.
“We encourage all producers to redouble their efforts to protect their birds through good biosecurity practices,” said Lyndsay Cole, a spokeswoman for the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service leading the government’s response.
Farmers started following those steps after the 2015 outbreak, and this outbreak has only reinforced the need to beef up biosecurity.
“America’s egg farmers continue to double down on biosecurity protocols to protect our flocks and maintain a stable supply of eggs. We are grateful that there has been little to no farm-to-farm spread in this current outbreak,” said Oscar Garrison, senior vice president of food safety and regulatory affairs for the United Egg Producers trade group.
Poultry and egg producers, in collaboration with the government, are looking at this outbreak for new lessons in keeping birds healthy.
“That’s really the key: early detection. It’s like a wildfire: the sooner you catch it, the easier it is to contain and eradicate it,” said National Chicken Council spokesman Tom Super.
Officials say bird flu does not pose a significant threat to human health. Human cases are extremely rare, and none of the infected birds can enter the nation’s food supply. And properly cooking poultry to 165 degrees Fahrenheit will kill any viruses.
Only one human case of bird flu has been confirmed during this outbreak, and that was in a man who had been helping to slaughter and remove infected birds from a Colorado farm. He recovered from the illness after a few days.