Poultry producers and government officials are preparing for a predicted renewed fall avian flu outbreak, such as improving biosecurity, but they disagree about whether a vaccine should be used.
The U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday heard from federal officials and a panel representing poultry farmers, with an eye toward fall when wild water fowl begin their southerly migration, which will be late August in Minnesota. Experts think the flu is spread by migrating birds, but do not know specifically how.
“We are facing the largest animal health emergency in this country’s history,” said Dr. John Clifford, a key U.S. Department of Agriculture official in dealing with the flu outbreak.
However, Clifford said, vaccine may not be the answer.
Some foreign countries are hesitant to buy poultry from this country.
“We’ve seen trade cut off by trading partners concerned about the devastating effects of this disease, causing over $1 billion in poultry products to be directed to other markets at a cost to producers,” Clifford said.
The USDA has investigated vaccinations, he said, but none has proven effective to the current H5N2 strain that has hit Midwest poultry farms.
“Aside from questions about its effectiveness, USDA believes that if a vaccine were used, some additional trading partners would ban all U.S. exports of poultry and eggs and not necessarily just those from the states currently affected … until they could complete a full risk assessment,” Clifford said. “The loss of these markets could cost U.S. producers at least $3 billion in trade revenue.”
Eighteen countries have suspended all American poultry imports, with 38 others stopping imports only from areas where bird flu has been confirmed.
Dr. David Swayne of USDA’s Agriculture Research Service said that in countries where vaccines have been used, they have not eradicated the disease.
“While testing looks promising, much more work needs to be done before a registered vaccine is found to be a viable option,” Swayne said.
Poultry farmers testifying in front of the committee delivered a mixed reaction to using vaccines.
“To truly recover from this devastating chapter, we need every means possible to eradicate the disease in commercial poultry,” said turkey farmer Brad Moline of Manson, Iowa. “There are many strategies that will be employed, but one of the most powerful potential tools in the toolbox will be a vaccine to fight the virus.”
On the other hand, James Dean of United Egg Producers in Sioux Center, Iowa, said vaccinating his flock would reduce egg production 10 percent because birds would need to receive three shots.
“That would mean a lot of people going into the building to do vaccination,” Dean said.
President Ken Klippen of the National Association of Egg Farmers said the virus had been hard on his members.
He told the story of Amon Baer of Lake Park, Minn., who testified in front of the Senate ag committee in 2012.
“He’s also one of the egg farmers devastated by avian influenza,” Klippen said. “When he discovered birds on his 300,000 egg layer farm dying suddenly in April, the laboratory confirmation of avian influenza made his heart sink. He would have to destroy every chicken on his farm.”
The virus has resulted in deaths of 10 percent of the chicken egg-laying population (42 million birds) and 3 percent of turkeys (7.5 million). Minnesota is the country’s top turkey producer, while Iowa is first in egg production.
Farmers and federal officials at the Senate hearing agreed that work to better keep the virus out of poultry flocks, an effort known as biosecurity.
While no new Midwestern bird flu cases have been reported in weeks, some of the farmers said federal officials could help them improve biosecurity, and perhaps help fund their efforts, before the predicted fall outbreak.
“We need some help knowing what areas of biosecurity we can improve on,” Moline said.
Clifford said that the USDA plans to give advice about improving biosecurity.
Moline was not happy with what some have said about his industry: “Could we all have done more to stop the spread of this virus? Most likely, but I take great offense to the notion articulated by some inside and outside the government that we in the turkey industry were careless or knowingly negligent. We in the industry, and my family farm specifically, have everything to lose by being sloppy; we don’t win by cutting corners.”
The new strain of avian flu needs new security procedures, Moline said. “What we have done successfully for years clearly needs to be revisited.”
The U.S. turkey slaughter in May tumbled 12 percent from the prior month, government data shows, as the country’s worst-ever case of bird flu decimated flocks in top producer Minnesota and surrounding states.
The 17.8 million turkeys slaughtered nationwide last month was 8 percent fewer than May 2014, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department’s monthly poultry slaughter report. It was also the lightest slaughter for the month of May since 1987, USDA data showed.
More than 7.5 million turkeys have been killed by highly pathogenic avian influenza or culled to control its spread since December, according to USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Hardest hit have been top producer Minnesota, which to date has lost more than 4.8 million birds, and No. 8 producer Iowa, where more than 1.5 million have died.
Minnesota’s May slaughter of 2.9 million young turkeys was down 31 percent from the previous month. However, the slaughter in Iowa rose 5.4 percent in May to 1.2 million birds.