Avian influenza shortens supplies of holiday turkeys

As a turkey farmer in Sacramento County, Ken Mitchell acknowledged he’s been on edge since a highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza was confirmed in wild birds in the state over the summer.

The virus has struck close to home: In August, Sacramento County became ground zero for the state’s first case of H5N1 avian influenza in backyard birds. Later that month, the disease was confirmed in a commercial turkey farm about 14 miles away from Mitchell’s, wiping out 97,000 birds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A third discovery was confirmed in more backyard birds in the county in September.

“I’m scared to death,” Mitchell said, adding that avian influenza, or AI, has been the “No. 1 thing in the forefront of my mind, with every little thing that I do.”

As of Nov. 14, the current outbreak has decimated nearly 685,000 birds in California, including 493,800 turkeys. Nationwide, the virus has killed more than 50.3 million birds in 46 states, including nearly 8 million turkeys, sending retail prices of the Thanksgiving centerpiece soaring to record-high levels ahead of the holiday.

The losses come on top of “an already shrinking national turkey flock and extremely tight supplies across the meat department,” reported Brian Earnest, an animal protein economist with CoBank.

Not only are wholesale prices of frozen turkeys 30% higher than last year, he said, but the selections are fewer, and the birds are smaller because AI has hit larger, heavier toms harder than it has hens. At the same time, holiday demand for the whole-body bird remains high, market analysts say.

“The good news is that we do not anticipate a shortage of turkeys for the holidays this year,” Earnest said.

Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation, agreed, saying that he thinks there will be enough turkeys for everyone “if they don’t care where the bird comes from” and that it’s frozen.

But last-minute shoppers may be hard-pressed to find California-raised turkeys, which are sold fresh, unless they ordered or reserved them in advance. With state turkey production at 5.9 million birds this year, California already doesn’t produce enough for its population, Mattos said, and with AI this year, the shortage is “even more critical.”

“All the supermarkets have been contracted for what they’re going to get,” he said. “They won’t be getting any more from California.”

Mitchell said his concern with the skyrocketing price of turkeys is that it could drive consumers out of the market altogether to where they won’t purchase any turkeys. “Don’t wish for something too great because it can come back and bite you,” he said.

But given the tradition of eating turkey on Thanksgiving, Mattos said he’s not too worried about impacts of higher-priced turkeys on the holiday menu. He said he thinks California turkeys will sell out as they do every year because “it’s what people want.”

H5N1 has hit commercial turkey flocks particularly hard. State Veterinarian Annette Jones said turkeys historically seem to be more susceptible to avian influenza, likely due to their housing and genetics.

Rodrigo Gallardo, professor of poultry medicine at the University of California, Davis, agreed, adding that turkeys and quails are more susceptible to AI infection, which is “why you usually see more outbreaks in turkeys than in chickens.”

To protect flocks, biosecurity on poultry farms remains tight as ever. Farm tours have stopped, Mattos said, though he noted most commercial poultry farms have not allowed visitors in production areas for years.

To quell spread, federal quarantine zones have been established in areas with confirmed AI cases, and vehicles such as delivery trucks cannot move in and out of those zones unless they’ve been disinfected outside the perimeter, Mattos said.

“It’s pretty strict right now,” he said.

The state’s most recent confirmed AI finding was on Nov. 3 in San Diego County affecting a backyard producer with 150 birds, according to USDA. The case remains active. Before that, the state’s last AI detection was on Oct. 13 in a Stanislaus County commercial turkey flock affecting 54,900 birds. USDA released that farm on Oct. 31. That means all birds on the property have died or have been culled, contaminated material has been disposed of, and the location is clean, disinfected and safe to repopulate, Jones said.

As a contract grower for Foster Farms, the state’s largest turkey producer, Mitchell said federal indemnification will help impacted farms recover some income from the bird losses. But it does not compensate for the cleanup efforts and downtime farms go through to get back online.

Mitchell noted that in past animal disease quarantines, including the 2014-15 avian influenza outbreak, cleanup in some locations took months before farms could restock and start production again.

With the current outbreak, cleanup has been speedier, often in a matter of weeks. Jones said California benefited from “lessons learned” in other states where AI struck first.

The nation’s first detection of H5N1 came in February in an Indiana commercial turkey flock six months before California’s first case. This allowed California producers and CDFA time to prepare, Jones said.

In addition to having “a more robust stockpile of equipment” and “very seasoned staff” on the federal side, Jones said USDA policies have “evolved to better support rapid action.” She noted that in most cases, state and federal officials were able to cull a location’s remaining flock within one day of confirmation while they initiated disease surveillance in the area.

What’s different with the current virus is that it often moves from one premise to another through infected wild birds that introduce the virus to domesticated flocks rather than direct farm-to-farm spread as in past disease outbreaks, Jones said. She credited producers’ biosecurity measures for the state’s relatively low prevalence of disease in commercial and backyard flocks.

Because AI detections in wild birds remain high, Jones has asked producers to keep their poultry indoors through at least the end of the year. This includes certified organic layers and meat birds that are required by law to have outdoor access.

Depending on their housing systems, many farms cannot entirely bring their birds inside, Jones pointed out. Some have set up tents and other covers, she said, but many farms continue to be exposed. The goal of bringing as many birds as possible under cover is to reduce risk, she said, and based on the state’s positive AI numbers in commercial flocks, the strategy seems to be working.

“Commercial producers have put a lot of funding and energy into keeping the virus out of their flocks,” Jones said. “But sometimes even with tremendous biosecurity effort, bad luck aligns, and the virus makes it into a flock.”

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at [email protected].)

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