Bird flu outbreak subsides, but virus threat remains

Bird Flu (Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed)

Bird Flu (Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed)

An outbreak of bird flu in the US that has led to the deaths of more than 40 million chickens and turkeys and contributed to a spike in egg and meat prices appears to be slowing, but experts warn the virus has not disappeared and fear another spike could to occur. hold this fall.

The number of birds culled to limit their spread has dropped from a peak of nearly 21 million in March to less than 800,000 in May. However, more than 2 million birds have been killed already this month after infections were discovered on two large farms in Colorado.

“The numbers on the dashboard tell a story, but we’re not ready to say the outbreak is abating,” said Richard Coker, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture’s Division of Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. “We remain vigilant and encourage producers to continue practicing strong biosecurity.”

Some state and industry officials are optimistic the outbreak is over, though no one is ready to relax.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig said the virus still poses a risk because more cases are being reported, but that “it really feels like we’re at the end of this year.”

When a case of the highly pathogenic virus is found, authorities kill the entire herd to limit its spread. The virus does not discriminate between backyard herds and large egg farms; flocks of all sizes were infected.

Iowa, the nation’s leader in egg production, was by far the hardest hit state, with 13.4 million birds lost. No cases have been reported in the state since May 4, likely because wild migratory birds, blamed for spreading the virus, fled Iowa.

Nebraska lost nearly 4.9 million birds, Pennsylvania lost 4.2 million and Colorado saw 3.6 million dead birds. Minnesota and Wisconsin lost about 3 million each.

An outbreak in 2015, when 50 million turkeys and chickens were killed, remains the costliest animal health disaster in US history. The government spent nearly $1 billion at the time to deal with infected birds, clean barns and compensate farmers. So far, the USDA has approved $793 million to cover this year’s costs.

National Federation of Turkey spokeswoman Beth Breeding said the government payments “prevent these losses from being catastrophic” but do not cover everything. For example, farmers lose income because they cannot raise birds while their properties are being disinfected.

Food prices are up 10% overall this year, beating inflation of 8.6% reported last month. Egg prices rose the most, jumping 32%, while poultry prices rose nearly 17%. But agricultural economists say that while the bird flu outbreak has contributed, spikes in the cost of feed, fuel and labor are much bigger factors.

It didn’t help that the outbreak peaked, as demand for eggs was highest at Easter, pushing up prices.

But a relatively small proportion of the national herd was affected. The 40 million birds slaughtered represent just 6% of hens raised for egg production, 2.5% of turkeys and less than 1% of hens raised for meat.

Economists expect egg and meat prices to decline this summer as farms can recover their herds.

“I think there will start to be some relief,” said Jada Thompson, an agricultural economist at the University of Arkansas.

The summer heat should help kill the disease, but experts fear the latest version of the virus could be tough enough to survive the season, leading to a new outbreak when wild birds migrate later in the year.

“We might have an even bigger spike this year in the fall, who knows?” University of Georgia researcher David Stallknecht said. “The honest answer is that we don’t know what the future holds, but the decline in commercial bird case reports is encouraging.”

The prospects for an avian flu vaccine are uncertain; foreign markets are reluctant to import inoculated poultry meat, and vaccination can hide the presence of the virus, meaning farmers would have to spend more to increase testing of their flocks. And vaccinated birds can still get sick, just like vaccinated humans.

“Personally, I don’t see the vaccine as something that will be used in the United States,” said John Clifford, a former US chief veterinarian who oversaw the USDA’s response to the 2015 outbreak. “Countries that don’t export may feel different. We cannot afford to lose these markets.”

There is much that farmers can do to limit the spread of bird flu. Farm workers often shower and change clothes before entering the barn, and the tools for each barn are kept separate.

Emily Metz, CEO of the American Egg Board trade group, said some farmers had invested heavily in fighting the virus, including upgrading ventilation systems and installing laser light systems to ward off wild birds.

“If it takes a while or comes back, we are prepared. We are not going to let our guard down,” Metz said. “The improvements our producers have made in terms of biosecurity are part of their daily business.”

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Associated Press reporter David Pitt contributed to this report from Des Moines, Iowa.

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