OMAHA, Neb. – The ongoing bird flu outbreak has cost the government about $661 million and added to the pain of consumers at the grocery store after more than 58 million birds were slaughtered to stem the spread of the virus.
Adding to the cost of government action and soaring prices for eggs, chickens and turkeys, farmers who raise these animals have easily lost more than $1 billion, an agricultural economist said, although no one has calculated the total cost to the industry.
The bad news is that with the outbreak entering its second year and the spring migration season approaching, there is no end in sight. And there is little farmers can do beyond the steps they have already taken to keep the virus at bay.
In contrast to years past, the virus that causes highly pathogenic bird flu found a way to survive last summer’s heat, leading to a surge in cases reported in the autumn.
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The outbreak is more widespread than the last major bird flu outbreak in 2015, but has yet to prove as costly, in part because government and industry have applied lessons learned eight years ago.
“The past year has been devastating for the turkey industry as we are witnessing what is clearly the worst outbreak of HPAI (highly pathogenic avian influenza) in the industry’s history,” said National Turkey Federation spokeswoman Shelby Newman.
In the current outbreak, 58.4 million birds were slaughtered on more than 300 commercial farms in 47 states. That’s because every time the virus is detected, the entire herd on that farm – which can number in the millions – has to be killed to stem the spread of the disease. Only Hawaii, Louisiana and West Virginia have yet to report a case of bird flu. Iowa — the nation’s largest egg producer — leads the nation with nearly 16 million birds slaughtered.
The price of a dozen eggs on January 10th at a grocery store in Glenview, Illinois.
Nam Y. Huh, AP
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In 2015, around 50 million chickens and turkeys were slaughtered on more than 200 farms in 15 states.
This earlier outbreak remains the costliest animal health disaster in US history. The federal government spent nearly $1 billion to deal with infected birds, clean barns and compensate farmers. It cost the industry around $3 billion as farmers incurred additional costs and lost money by not having birds.
Still, bills continue to pile up this year as cases spread, and that includes the cost to consumers.
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Egg prices shot up to $4.82 a dozen in January from $1.93 a year earlier, according to the latest government figures. This has led to calls for a price gouging, although the industry claims the combination of bird flu and significantly higher feed, fuel and labor costs are pushing up prices.
The price of a pound of chicken breast was $4.32 in January. That’s a slight drop from last fall when the price peaked at $4.75, but up significantly from $3.73 a pound a year earlier.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t track retail turkey prices in the same way as part of its inflation data, but the Department of Agriculture says the wholesale price of turkey rose from $1.29 a pound last January, just before the bird flu outbreak began $1.72 a pound has risen in the past month.
The number of birds slaughtered peaked last spring at almost 21 million in March, making farmers wary of what they will face in the coming months. University of Georgia virus researcher David Stallknecht said there is hope this spring may not be quite as bad as turkeys and chickens may have developed some immunity to the virus.
The highly contagious virus is easily spread by wild birds through droppings and nasal discharge.
The outbreak of bird flu could lead to new vaccines for poultry.
“We encourage all producers to redouble their efforts to protect their birds through good biosecurity practices,” said Lyndsay Cole, a spokeswoman for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which is leading the government’s response.
Farmers have gone to great lengths, requiring workers to shower and change clothes before entering barns, disinfecting trucks entering a farm, and investing in separate tool kits for each barn. Some farms have even improved stall ventilation and installed laser systems to discourage wild birds from congregating.
Farmers began taking these steps after the 2015 outbreak, and that outbreak reinforced the need to tighten biosecurity.
“America’s egg farmers continue to double down on biosecurity protocols to protect our flocks and maintain a stable egg supply. We are grateful that there has been little to no farm-to-farm spread in this current outbreak,” said Oscar Garrison, senior vice president of food safety and regulatory affairs at trade group United Egg Producers.
Poultry and egg producers working with the government are analyzing this outbreak to learn new lessons for keeping birds healthy.
“That’s really the key – early detection. It’s like a wildfire – the sooner you catch it, the easier it is to contain and eradicate it,” said Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council.
Officials say bird flu does not pose a significant threat to human health. Human cases are extremely rare, infected birds must not be included in the country’s food supply. Proper cooking of poultry at 165 degrees Fahrenheit kills all viruses.
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