Escalating Bird-Flu Outbreak Takes Toll on U.S. Poultry Farms
Deadly outbreak, the industry’s worst since the 1980s, has expanded to more than a dozen states
By Kelsey Gee and Jacob Bunge in the Wall Street Journal
The rapid escalation this week of a U.S. bird-flu outbreak is elevating fears that the deadly virus could linger for years, hobbling a poultry industry struggling to identify its causes.
The disease has led to the deaths of about 7.1 million birds in the past month, hitting farms the hardest in Minnesota, the nation’s top turkey producer and home to Hormel Foods Corp. , the second-largest U.S. turkey processor. The virus surfaced dramatically this week in an Iowa egg-laying flock, striking a facility that housed 3.8 million hens.
Though the casualties so far account for a fraction of the poultry industry’s annual production of about nine billion chickens and turkeys and the egg industry’s 303 million birds, industry and government officials are uncertain how the virus is spreading and worry it could extend further across the Midwest and eventually reach the heart of the chicken industry in the southern U.S.
The outbreak, the poultry industry’s worst since the 1980s, has expanded to more than a dozen states. It has prompted many countries to impose bans on imports of U.S. poultry, leading to declines in overseas shipments of turkey and chicken legs, chicken feet and other products.
“We don’t have a handle on how these farms are getting it,” said John Umber, who raises about 150,000 turkeys each year near Viking, Minn. “There’s just too many unknowns.”
The highly infectious H5N2 strain of avian influenza is a combination of a deadly strain that originated in Asia and later combined with North American versions, according to scientists. Stricken turkeys and chickens may stop eating or become lethargic, begin to cough and sneeze, and can die off quickly, according to animal health officials.
Researchers think it is spreading through the droppings of wild ducks and geese as they migrate to the upper Midwest to breed during the warmer months of the year. But it’s unclear how the virus enters already tightly managed poultry houses, which typically are enclosed to prevent exposure to pathogens and predators.
One theory is that poultry workers unknowingly are tracking the droppings into the facilities despite stringent biosecurity practices. Farmers and meat companies say that workers typically change boots before entering poultry farms, outsiders usually aren’t admitted, and equipment regularly is disinfected. Another possibility—discussed on a media call this week by John Clifford, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief veterinary officer—is that wind gusts may carry virus particles from feathers or bird excrement to poultry facilities.
“The system has worked beautifully,” said John Glisson, vice president of research programs for the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association. “But it’s not perfect.”
The virus strain poses a low risk to human health, and no human infections have been identified so far, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The poultry industry has faced bird-flu outbreaks in the past, though none has covered such a wide territory, according to veterinarians and industry officials. The original strain was first recorded by the USDA in December in wild fowl in Washington state and then spread in its current form to a backyard poultry flock, according to scientists. The strain since has traveled to states as far away as Arkansas, Kansas and South Dakota. A bird-flu outbreak in the 1980s led to the culling of about 17 million birds but was contained to the northeastern U.S.
Turkey farms have accounted for the bulk of commercial flocks afflicted with the flu. That may be because the upper Midwest—where the virus has been most prevalent—is home to more turkey farms than chicken farms, industry officials and veterinarians said. Also, virologists said turkeys are more susceptible than chickens are to this strain of avian influenza, due in part to differences in the two birds’ immune systems.
About 40 countries since December have imposed bans on poultry products from a specific county, state or the entire U.S. Shipments of chicken-broiler meat fell 17% in February versus the same month a year ago, partly due to trade restrictions implemented by China and Korea in response to the virus, according to a USDA report earlier this month.
Hormel has been the hardest hit of U.S. poultry processors, losing about 1.9 million turkeys since late March, according to USDA estimates and information posted on the company’s website. During that span, 30 farms supplying birds to Hormel have been afflicted with the virus, and account for about two-thirds of Minnesota’s cases.
Hormel, which sells turkey products under the Jennie-O Turkey Store brand, this week acknowledged “significant challenges in our turkey supply chain” because of the outbreak and projected its 2015 earnings would be at the lower end of its previously forecast range.
The virus also has been confirmed in turkey farms supplying Butterball LLC, the top U.S. turkey processor, as well as Cargill Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc.
Tyson elevated its turkey biosecurity to “red status” following the first confirmed influenza case in Iowa, according to a spokesman, which prohibits nonessential personnel on farms supplying the company and additional disinfection of equipment. Cargill has also stepped up sanitation measures and has restricted movements of turkeys and related farm supplies, according to a spokesman.
Farmers whose birds are determined through USDA testing to have a case of the influenza receive compensation from the agency for birds that must be destroyed. But payments don’t cover birds that die from the flu, which can rapidly move through flocks. The process of cleaning out a quarantined operation and ensuring it’s disease-free before farmers can begin raising turkeys again can be costly and take months, according to poultry executives.
Some farmers say they are at wit’s end standing guard against the threat. Kent Meschke, who raises 500,000 turkeys a year near Little Falls, Minn., said in recent days he has posted signs at the end of his driveway to warn away potential visitors. He has arranged to meet trucks delivering feed for the birds on country roads, so they don’t have to drive onto his farm.
Mr. Meschke’s farm workers also are being held to strict hygiene standards. “Our employees are instructed, when they come here, they should look like they’re going to church,” he said.
Warmer weather could curb the virus’s advance, poultry officials said, but they are girding for the disease to stick around.
Carol Cardona, a veterinary science professor at the University of Minnesota, estimated that such viruses can persist for three to five years in waterfowl populations.
The influenza could evolve again over the summer months and pose a new threat when wild birds begin migrating south again, said Phil Stayer, corporate veterinarian for Sanderson Farms Inc., the third-largest U.S. chicken processor by volume. “We’re worried it will come back in force in the fall,” he said.