As most of you are aware, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has confirmed several strains of highly pathogenic avian flu (HPAI) virus strains in turkey flocks in a handful of states. At presstime in late April, the (HPAI) virus had infected primarily turkey flocks, which have exhibited a slightly higher susceptibility to the virus than commercial broiler chickens. These virus strains are capable of causing rapid and widespread mortality in commercial flocks of all types of birds without proper controls.

What is avian influenza?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Bird flu, or avian flu, is caused by a type of influenza virus that is hosted by birds but may infect several species of mammals. It was first identified in Italy in the early 1900s. A strain of the H5N1-type of avian influenza virus that emerged in 1997 has been identified as the most likely source of a future influenza pandemic. Avian influenza is caused by an orthomyxovirus, or influenza virus, and can survive for considerable lengths of time outside of the host, and birds are infected through contact with other birds, mechanical vectors such as vehicles and equipment and personnel travelling between farms, markets and abattoirs.”

How does it affect us?

Bird flu has been a serious concern since it resurfaced globally in 1997. Again, according to the CDC, “Strains of avian influenza virus may infect various types of animals, including birds, pigs, horses, seals, whales and humans. However, wild fowl act as natural asymptomatic carriers, spreading it to more susceptible domestic stocks.”

How is it spread?

The spread follows a seasonal pattern that has a direct correlation to seasonal bird migration. Avian influenza virus spreads in the air and in manure. Multiple news sources reported migratory ducks are believed to be spreading the virus as they travel to northern states after spending the winter farther south.

Preliminary indications point to the likelihood that the current virus was introduced into the commercial turkey and broiler egg laying flocks by migratory waterfowl from the Pacific and Mississippi flyways in U.S. These are the primary pathways for seasonal migration of wild ducks, geese and other wild species. Although their populations are largely unaffected by highly pathogenic forms of avian influenza, wild waterfowl populations have been identified as the likely sources of recent introduction of (HPAI) into commercial flocks in the affected U.S. states during seasonal migration.

How is it controlled?

The vast geography insulates U.S producers from spreading the disease to other regions. The U.S. practice of raising chickens and turkeys in well-secured housing creates the biosecurity that provides the greatest barrier to the spread of bird flu. Precautionary requirements include cleaning and disinfection of premises, and the establishment of a biosecurity barrier to help prevent spread of disease is essential. Additionally, rock-solid evidence documents that the thermal-processing methods employed by the U.S. rendering industry destroy the (HPAI) virus (via a study conducted by Clemson University — information can be obtained from David Meeker of the National Renders Association).

No need for panic

Safety is the No. 1 concern of the U.S. industry and the producers. The U.S. production system has been engineered to include superior biosecurity. According to the USDA, “It is important to stress that each incident has been localized to single flocks at a single location, and rapid intervention by state and federal government officials has prevented the additional infections from resulting in farm-to-farm transmission in commercial poultry.”

Additionally, the CDC says, “There is no evidence that the virus can survive in well-cooked meat.”

Moving forward

To date these are minor outbreaks, but they could cause a knee-jerk reaction among certain trading partners of the United States, resulting in damaging interruption of supply of poultry exports from states with affected birds. Trading partners from other regions of the world evaluating this situation need to understand the vast geographic separation of space that exists in the United States.

Our trading partners should keep a very open mind and evaluate the newest information before making decisions.