Avian Flu Effecting Growers Throughout Country, Including Local Farms

The price of eggs and chicken continue to rise as the H5N8 strain of Avian Influenza has moved from the West Coast to the Midwest. And the price of Thanksgiving dinner is bound to cost more this year, too.

H5N8 hit a few Central California poultry farms earlier this year, with the virus infecting part of an 114,000-bird farm in Kings County in February, according to the US Department of Agriculture and reported in the Capital Press. A Stanislaus County turkey farm was confirmed with the disease in January.

While California is not a tremendous egg or broiler producing state, the disease has been a major concern for local farmers who do work in the poultry industry and also is becoming a major problem for poultry farmers all around the country.

This outbreak found in Kings County was an isolated case, said Tim Niswander, Kings County agricultural commissioner. It was handled by the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the US Department of Agriculture, he said.

The farmer has two locations about one mile apart, he said. The disease was confined to one location and only a few of the chicken houses at that location were involved.

“The incident of Avian Influenza didn’t have much effect on other growers or producers in Kings County,” he said.

At the infected location, the houses involved were completely cleaned out, and in-house composting of all carcasses and debris was done, Niswander said. Then, the houses were thoroughly disinfected. Niswander was unsure as to when those houses would be cleared for potential use again.

The CDFA and USDA also checked nearby farms and backyard flocks and found no further incidents of the disease.

Shortly after the Kings County discover, Hong Kong placed a ban on poultry meat and eggs produced in Kings County in response to the finding, according to an industry publication, Meat + Poultry.

Preceding the outbreak in the Western US, H5N8 was found in British Columbia and was traced back to South-East Asia, and mainly Korea, said Maurice Pitesky, DVM, MPVM, DAVPM, assistant specialist in the University of California, Davis, Cooperative Extension division of Poultry Health and Food Safety Epidemiology.

The disease is transferred through waterfowl along their migratory paths, he said. Waterfowl who came down to California through Washington and Oregon, brought the disease with them during the winter months. Likewise, waterfowl traveling to the Midwest in the late spring and early summer are transporting the disease there now and it is expected that the disease will hit the East coast later this year.

H5N8 does not appear to affect the waterfowl that become carriers, but it is deadly to poultry including chickens and turkeys, Pitesky said.

“It has a high mortality rate in that it is 90-100 percent fatal,” he said.

If one bird tests positive, the entire flock should be depopulated immediately, he said.

The disease knows no boundaries and there is a risk to backyard poultry enthusiasts as well. It only takes one wild bird to land in a backyard, near a chicken, to infect that bird. Private, small flock owners should also be aware of the disease and follow as many preventative measures as possible.

“Backyard poultry has all kinds of advantages and has become very popular,” Pitesky said. “But anyone close to a waterfowl location should be very careful.”

Those with domesticated fowl should discourage wild waterfowl from entering their yards, by keeping all food sources covered and eliminating any potential pond area. The disease is not only transmitted from bird to bird, but can be dropped in feces and other secretions and may be carried in on shoes, or clothing. When visiting an area where wild waterfowl have been, animal technicians should change shoes and clothing before tending to their own flocks.

There is a vaccine for this strain of Avian Influenza and the USDA is exploring the possibility of using it, but it is very debatable, Pitesky said. Some countries have used it. But, it is very hard to deal with.

Vaccinated individuals will not come down with clinical signs or illness of the disease, but they could become a carrier of it.

“There are a lot of people who feel we should vaccinate, and others say ‘no,’” Pitesky said. “Once started, it could become an issue for trade restrictions,” as other countries may not want to import vaccinated birds, who could be carriers.

While H5N8 is highly pathogenic in poultry, and there is a possibility of it affecting other avian species, including some native species,  it should cause little to no concern for humans or other animals.

“We have never seen anything from this particular pathogen becoming a problem for humans,” Pitesky said. “It would have to be a pretty unique set of circumstances for it to become a problem for humans.”

California imports most of its eggs from the Midwest, as well as turkeys. Most broiler chickens come from the East Coast. With migration of the disease and major industry areas being hit with it, the price of eggs, turkeys and broiler chickens will continue to rise this year.

For now, California is in a stable environment, Pitesky said. But, everyone is waiting to see what will happen early in the fall.

“Was this an anomaly? A one-time mystery,” he said. “Or now, a continuing deal?

“While hoping for the best, most everyone is planning for the worst.”

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