From Wyoming to Maine, an outbreak of the highly contagious bird flu this year has engulfed farms and backyard flocks across the United States, killing millions of chickens and turkeys.
Iowa has been hit particularly hard, with disasters being declared in some counties and the state canceling live bird shows, which could impact its famous state fair.
Here’s what we know about bird flu.
What is bird flu?
Avian flu, better known as bird flu, is a highly contagious and deadly virus that can affect chickens, turkeys and wild birds, including ducks and geese. It spreads via nasal secretions, saliva and feces, which experts say is difficult to contain.
Symptoms of the virus include a sudden increase in a flock’s mortality rate, a drop in egg production, and reduced intake of feed and water.
The virus, Eurasian H5N1, is closely related to an Asian strain that has infected hundreds of people since 2003, mostly those who had worked with infected poultry. Its prevalence in the United States is not unexpected, with outbreaks previously reported in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.
Do people have to be afraid of contagion?
The risk to humans is very small, said Ron Kean, a faculty member and extension specialist in the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences at Madison.
“It’s not impossible for people to get this virus, but it’s been pretty rare,” Kean said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they have been monitoring people across the United States who have been exposed to infected poultry and other birds. So far, no cases of H5N1 infection have been found among them, the CDC said.
Is It Safe to Eat Poultry and Eggs?
Yes, according to the US Department of Agriculture, which has stated that properly prepared and cooked poultry and eggs should not pose a risk to consumers.
The likelihood of infected poultry entering the food chain is “extremely low,” the agency said. Under federal guidelines, the Food Safety and Inspection Service, part of the USDA, is responsible for inspecting all poultry sold in interstate and foreign trade. According to the service, which noted that inspectors have unrestricted access to these facilities, inspectors must be present at all times during the slaughter process.
According to the inspection service, egg production companies that are subject to the federal ordinance must undergo a daily inspection once per shift. State control programs that control poultry products sold only in the state in which they were produced are additionally monitored by the USDA.
According to experts, the virus is currently primarily an animal health problem due to the mandatory culling of infected herds.
Still, the USDA recommends cooking poultry to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit to reduce the potential for foodborne illness.
Can I expect to pay more for poultry products?
Egg prices skyrocketed when an outbreak hit the United States in 2014 and 2015. Recently, the average price of high-quality large white eggs has “trended sharply higher,” according to a March 25 national retail report released by the USDA. Experts say if infections spread through more herds, there could be a shortage of eggs. Prices for white and dark chicken also rose, according to the USDA. Experts warned that turkey prices could also become more volatile.
How is the virus detected?
Testing for avian influenza typically involves swabbing the mouth and tracheal area of chickens and turkeys. Samples are sent to diagnostic laboratories for analysis.
Outbreaks have been identified in more than a dozen states.
As of March 31, the highly pathogenic form of bird flu had been detected in 19 states, according to a USDA-maintained tracking site.
The total number of birds in the infected flocks — commercial and backyard types — totaled more than 17 million, according to the agency. A USDA spokesman confirmed that these birds would need to be euthanized to prevent the spread of the virus.
A commercial egg production facility in Buena Vista County, Iowa, represented the largest infected flock, consisting of more than 5.3 million chickens, the USDA said.
Next on the list was an egg producer in Jefferson County, Wisconsin, with more than 2.7 million chickens. A commercial poultry flock in New Castle County, Delaware, was the third largest infected flock, with more than 1.1 million chickens.
How are these eruptions different from previous ones?
The outbreak in the US in 2014 and 2015 was blamed for $3 billion in agricultural sector losses and was considered the most destructive in the country’s history. Nearly 50 million birds died either from the virus or because they had to be killed, most of them in Iowa or Minnesota.
The footprint of the current outbreak, which stretches from the Midwest and Plains to northern New England, has been a cause for concern.
“I think we’re certainly seeing a larger geographic spread than we did in 2014-2015,” said Dr. Andrew Bowman, associate professor in the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
What can be done to stop the spread of the virus?
Last year, the USDA warned of the likelihood of an outbreak of bird flu and stressed tightening “biosecurity” measures to protect chicken and turkey flocks.
Biosecurity measures include restricting access to the herds and requiring farm workers to practice strict hygiene measures such as wearing disposable boots and suits. Sharing farm equipment may contribute to the spread of the virus, experts say. This also applies to farm workers who have contact with wild birds, including when hunting.
“Whether that’s restricting access to feed and water sources or even truck routes, how we’re trying to limit these connections that could spread pathogens between herds, it’s all really important,” Bowman said. “At this point, every poultry farmer needs to think about how they can improve their biosecurity.”
Is it necessary to kill millions of chickens and turkeys?
Infected birds can experience complete paralysis, swelling around the eyes, and contortion of the head and neck, according to the USDA. The virus is so contagious, experts say, that there is little choice but to kill off infected herds.
Methods include spraying chickens and turkeys with a foam that causes asphyxiation. In other cases, carbon dioxide is used to kill the birds, whose carcasses are often composted or disposed of in a landfill.
“It’s probably more humane than letting them die from the virus,” Kean said.
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