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Monday December 11, 2017

Workers test a turkey for avian influenza

This time last year, American turkey growers were feeling the effects of what USDA has called "the largest animal-health emergency in U.S. history." An outbreak of highly contagious avian influenza, or bird flu, which started in December 2014 and lasted through June 2015, caused the death of more than 48 million turkeys and chickens, including about 3.8 million birds in Nebraska, eventually costing an estimated $3.3 billion in this country, according to the Congressional Research Service. The outbreak in the Midwest led to a turkey shortage that lasted into spring 2016 and also led to higher prices last year.

Fast-forward to this Thanksgiving, and turkey processing is now about 10 percent higher than the same time last year, and no one is talking seriously about any shortage in supply of either frozen or fresh turkeys.

Despite some holes remaining in the nation's protection against the worldwide disease, including some seriously unanswered questions about precisely how it jumped from wild birds to commercial poultry, a year later experts believe the nation is prepared for the next inevitable outbreak. How did the United States avoid a turkey apocolypse?

Working with Congress, USDA has beefed up plans to respond to another outbreak by targeting a series of efforts to three main audiences: commercial poultry farms, technical service industry, and small hobby poultry farmers. "USDA...has learned a great deal through the experience of responding to the largest animal health event in our history," the agency says. Not only did the government and industry react to improve its response, but it also used the outbreak as an opportunity to collect scientific data on the field viruses and from affected premises, as well as solicit feedback from affected parties to better prepare for a future outbreak. Although another outbreak still poses significant risk to the industry and can wipe out individual flocks, the food chain should be aware the United States has the world's strongest surveillance program for the disease. Federal and state animal health agencies along with industry have responded to contain and control another outbreak through several measures:

  • Promoting improved on-farm "biosecurity" practices. Although USDA has concluded wild birds were responsible for introducing the flu virus into the environment, from which it then spread to commercial poultry farms, the number and proximity of affected farms leads them to believe the virus likely spread in other ways as well once it was introduced. For that reason, USDA has emphasized the importance of individual farms upgrading their security practices that help keep infections out of their farms.
  • Improving bird-flu surveillance in wild birds as a means to provide “early warning” risk information. USDA has markedly stepped up testing for the presence of virus in wild migratory birds, funding several university-centered testing programs. It has shared the data from this surveillance throughout the year with poultry producers and other stakeholders in order to communicate ongoing or changing risk of exposure and to encourage enhanced biosecurity.
  • Expanding federal, state and industry response capabilities, including additional personnel, equipment and depopulation, disposal and recovery options. The agency has surveyed government, first responders and industry within the 20 states it considers critically important should a worst-case flu outbreak recur. From that analysis, it has concluded all states have made significant improvements in response capabilities for future cases. Industry-based efforts are also ongoing to improve education and awareness about the disease.
  • Improving the capabilities to rapidly find flu in domestic poultry and to kill off affected flocks within 24 hours. USDA's veterinary division has rallied not only its current tools to quickly and humanely kill infected birds an entire barn at time and dispose of their carcasses quickly and without environmental hazard, but it has also increased research to study new and possibly more effective tools. It has also studied the demographics of poultry populations and better mapped rendering, landfill and incineration facilities that would be needed in case of another outbreak.
  • Streamlining the process to pay affected farmers for their sacrificed birds and for the cost of eliminating viruses, so producers receive a fair amount quickly and can return to full production as quickly as possible.
  • Enhancing the agency's ability to communicate in a timely and effective way with producers, consumers, legislators, media and others regarding outbreaks and other information.
  • Working to identify and deploy effective bird-flu vaccines. Although vaccination is a common tool farmers use to control other diseases in their animals and birds, vaccination against flu creates several problems that make it impractical at this time. For one, influenza is a difficult virus to create a vaccine against that reliably matches the field strains of the virus, so it's not often effective. Secondly, vaccination with flu virus across the poultry industry would confuse surveillance for the disease, since birds that have been vaccinated can't be easily or cheaply distinguished from those that are carrying the wild, infective virus. However, USDA is working to identify better vaccines, and has outlined a strategy in which vaccination might be used as an emergency approach within a tightly confined geographic area with dense poultry production.

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