OMAH, NEBRASKA – The ongoing bird flu outbreak has cost the government over $661 million and made supermarket shopping more difficult for customers after more than 58 million birds were killed to stop the virus’ spread.
Although no one has yet estimated the total cost to the business, an agricultural economist estimated that farmers who produce those animals have easily lost more than $1 billion in addition to the expense of the government’s response and rising costs for eggs, chicken, and turkey.
The bad news is that there is no end in sight as the outbreak enters its second year and the spring migratory season approaches. Beyond the measures they have previously taken to attempt to keep the virus out, there is not much that farmers can do.
In contrast to previous years, the virus that causes highly virulent avian influenza discovered a way to endure the summer’s heat, which increased the number of cases that were recorded in the fall.
Lessons from the avian flu
Although the outbreak has already expanded further than the previous significant bird flu pandemic in 2015, it hasn’t yet been as expensive, in part because the government and businesses have used the lessons gained eight years ago.
According to Shelby Newman, a spokeswoman for the National Turkey Federation, “the past year has been catastrophic for the turkey industry as we face, without a doubt, the biggest HPAI (highly pathogenic avian influenza) outbreak in the industry’s history.”
On more than 300 commercial farms spread over 47 states, 58.4 million birds have been killed as a result of the current pandemic. This is because whenever the virus is found, the whole flock on that farm—which may number in the millions—must be destroyed to stop the disease’s spread. Only West Virginia, Hawaii, and Louisiana have not yet reported any cases of avian flu. Iowa, which produces the most eggs in the US, is at the top with roughly 16 million killed birds.
On more than 200 farms spread across 15 states, almost 50 million chickens and turkeys were slaughtered in 2015.
The preceding outbreak is still the most costly animal health catastrophe in American history. To cope with diseased birds, clear up barns, and compensate farmers, the federal government spent close to $1 billion. Farmers lost money and incurred additional expenses when they didn’t have any birds in their fields, which cost the sector over $3 billion.
Food costs increase the cost of the avian flu epidemic
As the cases multiply this year, the expenditures are mounting, and the cost to consumers is no exception.
According to the most recent government statistics, egg costs soared up to $4.82 a dozen in January from $1.93 a year earlier. Although the industry contends that the combination of avian flu and much-increased feed, fuel, and labor expenses is what is driving prices so high, that spike spurred calls for a price-gouging investigation.
In January, a pound of chicken breast cost $4.32. This is up dramatically from the previous year when chicken breasts were selling for $3.73 per pound, although it is down slightly from last fall when the price peaked at $4.75.
The Agriculture Department reports that the wholesale price of turkey increased from $1.29 per pound in January of last year, just before the bird flu outbreak started, to $1.72 per pound last month. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track retail turkey prices in the same way as part of its inflation data.
Farmers are wary of what they will have to deal with in the coming months after the number of birds slain peaked last spring at around 21 million in March. According to David Stallknecht, a virus expert at the University of Georgia, there is a chance that this spring won’t be quite as awful because hens and turkeys may have gained some antibodies to the virus.
Farmers are the primary source of bird flu defense
The primary issue with bird flu is that it is easily transmitted by wild birds through their feces and nasal secretions. Bird flu is a highly contagious virus. It is challenging to keep the virus out, despite farmers’ best efforts.
Producers have taken extra precautions like asking workers to take a shower and change before entering barns, disinfecting trucks as they approach a farm, and purchasing unique tool sets for each barn. Some farms have gone as far as installing laser systems and improving barn ventilation to deter the gathering of wild birds.
Lyndsay Cole, a spokesman for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which is in charge of overseeing the government’s response, said, “We suggest all producers step up their efforts to protect their birds through good biosecurity standards.”
Farmers started taking those precautions after the epidemic in 2015, and this outbreak has just emphasized the need for tighter biosecurity.
To safeguard their flocks and keep the egg supply steady, US egg farmers are stepping up their biosecurity efforts. Oscar Garrison, senior vice president of food safety and regulatory affairs of the United Egg Producers trade association, expressed gratitude that the current outbreak has not migrated from farm to farm much or at all.
In collaboration with the government, poultry, and egg producers are analyzing this outbreak to learn new lessons about maintaining the health of birds.
Early detection is truly the key. Similar to a forest fire, the easier it is to contain and put out the fire the earlier it is discovered, according to National Chicken Council spokesman Tom Super.
Authorities claim there is little danger to human health from bird flu. Since none of the infected birds are permitted to enter the country’s food supply, human cases are incredibly uncommon. And any viruses in poultry will be killed by properly cooking it to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
One human case of bird flu has been identified during this outbreak, and that person was a guy who assisted in the killing and removal of diseased birds from a Colorado farm. After a few days, the disease was over for him.