Bird flu, aka highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), is wreaking havoc on the US poultry industry again and threatening supplies of everything from turkeys and chickens to eggs. This year’s outbreak is ongoing from the spring wild bird migration, which is different from the previous major outbreak in 2014-15, when cases mostly disappeared over the summer. While cases did slow for a few months, HPAI is now roaring back with a vengeance, with over 5.6 million birds affected in September alone.
Right on queue for the holidays, essential supplies-including the centerpiece turkey and eggs needed for all those pies-are in short supply and prices are skyrocketing. As of the week of September 26, turkey hens prices were +30% higher than last year and nearly +80% higher than prepandemic levels. Meanwhile, wholesale egg prices just hit a new record high $3.62 per dozen.
Nationwide, more than 47 million birds have been killed by avian flu or culled to control its spread this year in the nation’s worst outbreak since a record 50 million birds were wiped out in 2015. A highly lethal form of avian flu infected a commercial flock of breeding chickens in Arkansas, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said on Friday, widening an outbreak of the disease in the key southern producing region. One commercial egg operation in Colorado recently had to cull over 1.15 million laying hens. The most recent USDA weekly egg inventory report showed there were -23% fewer eggs on hand than last year for the week ended September 26.
Turkey in cold storage was up only +1% over last year as of August 31 and insiders say the industry is struggling to keep up. Many producers had been focusing on whole birds for Thanksgiving while foregoing products that require more processing, such as deli meat, according to CoBank. However, high feed costs have further exacerbated the supply of larger birds.
One of the main HPAI strains in circulation is H5N1, which is highly pathogenic and causes extreme mortality, according to veterinarian Jarra Jagne head of the Avian Health Program at Cornell University’s Animal Health Diagnostic Center. “This virus just enters and destroys the tissues,” Jagne says. “And so within 24 to 48 hours after seeing the first sick or dead birds, you will see very high mortality.”
Another key difference-and one that is particularly concerning-between the current outbreak and 2014-15 is the number of wild birds being affected. According to experts, the death toll among wild birds is “orders of magnitude” larger than the 2014-15 outbreak. It’s also been confirmed in far more species, with cases documented in some 108 wild bird species across nearly ever state this year, versus just 18 species in 16 states in 2014-15.
Biologists say the next few months could be even worse as migrating birds begin to flood global flyways. Wintering wild bird flocks are also expected to be unusually large this year, especially in areas experiencing drought. In another unusual development, this year’s outbreak has seen a high rate of mammal-crossover cases and deaths, including in foxes, skunks, opossums, raccoons, bobcats, minks, harbor seals, a juvenile black bear, and a dolphin. Labs are so overwhelmed that wildlife officials say they’ve stopped submitting carcasses of species that have already been documented in their county.
Those combined developments among wildlife also increase the risk of HPAI spreading more widely to commercial flock. Wildlife officials are even warning hunters that farm or have backyard poultry to be extra cautious and follow proper biosecurity steps to prevent contaminating flocks at home. USDA’s USDA “Defend the Flock” program is a useful guide for hunters and anyone else that is around birds. Ways to report wild bird or other wildlife mortality events can be found HERE. Remember, whenever possible, avoid contact with sick or dead wildlife. Even if a bird is not suspected to have died from a contagious disease, gloves should always be worn if a dead animal must be handled for disposal. (Sources: WattAgNet, Bloomberg, Reuters, USDA)