Manitoba poultry producers and processors have yet to be stung by the avian influenza sweeping farms south of the border, but that doesn’t mean it’s business as usual.
Enhanced biosecurity brings a host of changes and logistical challenges.
“We’ve increased our sanitation measures, we have foot baths now at all the entrances to our production facilities for employees and visitors to use, all of our trucks are sanitized before they leave, and certainly when they return from the farm,” said Craig Evans, CEO of Granny’s Poultry Co-operative.
All non-essential visitors have also been barred from the organization’s facilities, and its annual general meeting has been postponed.
“We felt, why risk having all those producers together in one place?” said the CEO. “Better to be safe.”
Truck drivers have also been equipped with backpack sprayers full of disinfectant.
“Before they enter the farm they spray the vehicle, the undercarriage, the tires, things like that, and then they spray it again when they leave the farm,” Evans said
Steve Leech, national program director for Chicken Farmers of Canada, noted that even during “peace time” poultry farms practise intense biosecurity under the industry’s mandatory food safety program. But when the threat level is high, the program kicks into high gear, outlining enhanced practices.
“When there is disease present, either on your farm or in the area — certainly with the cases of avian influenza we had in B.C. and now Ontario — producers are being requested to implement this higher level of biosecurity,” Leech said.
For Granny’s, enhanced biosecurity means installing a goose deterrent system at its hatchery facilities.
“We’ve put up lights that scare away geese, they operate at a different wavelength that only the geese can see, and they supposedly keep the geese at bay,” Evans explained. “We’ve had them up for a few days now and we haven’t seen any geese around, so for us that is good.”
Wild birds, which can serve as a reservoir for the avian influenza virus, will continue to be a major concern in the coming months, according to U.S. officials.
As reported by Reuters, the United State’s Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service believes it is “highly probable” that the same bird flu pathogens wreaking havoc this spring will return in the fall as wild birds again take to their migration routes.
“When it comes to wild birds, it really is difficult in terms of knowing where the infection is and where it’s going to be spread to. So really the key is biosecurity measures… prevent that virus from entering into the barns,” said Leech. “Whether that be through the producer or other stakeholders involved, we’re focused on change of boots, change of clothes going into the barn, in quarantine zones, in high-risk areas, certainly in Ontario there’s been a request for washing and disinfection, the ability to do that on each property, so that anyone going onto or off of that property can wash and disinfect and make sure that the virus isn’t being spread.”
Keeping the virus at bay also means that the imported eggs and breeder pullets the Canadian poultry industry relies on can’t go through any infected or quarantined areas en route to Manitoba.
And with nearly 50 farms impacted in Minnesota alone and 6.1 million birds being slated for destruction in Iowa last week, plotting a clear path northward can be difficult.
“You’re trying to figure out how you get your truck from say, Arkansas or Georgia, where these birds and eggs are produced, up to Canada… without going through these areas or zones,” said Evans. “Right now some of those things are coming through Montana to us — that’s a long detour.”
But at least the inconvenience is only a logistical one, he added.
The co-operative’s hatchery produces more than 10 million chicks each year and if the disease were to emerge there the impact would be far reaching.
“We certainly would be looking to work with others in the industry to custom hatch for us in that case, or we would ship our eggs to another hatchery, but again capacity becomes a problem there. We would import chicks if we could but again the borders… it’s tough to get stuff back and forth across the borders now given the extent of the spread of the virus in the U.S. right now,” Evans said. “It would have a very significant impact on our business… and some of our producers wouldn’t be able to grow to quota.”
But so far the impacts have been minimal.
In November 2010, a case of bird flu on a turkey farm in Manitoba’s Interlake region resulted in a severe backlash for the province’s chicken industry, which saw exports cut in half for a period of months.
But the impact was most severe for turkey farmers themselves — 8,200 birds were destroyed and a nearby hatchery quarantined.
Bill Uruski, chairman of the Manitoba Turkey Producers, noted that that outbreak was also of the H5N2 strain, the common bird flu found in wild bird populations.
“It was only noticed when the birds stopped laying,” he said, adding that producers should remain alert for any changes in bird health.
“I think right now, right now we’re keeping our fingers crossed,” he said. “Producers are doing their part as best they can on their own farms, in their own situation and we’re hopeful that the wild bird migration is over. If we can get through the next several weeks… we will be able to breathe a little easier.
If there is a silver lining to the situation, it’s that consumers are more comfortable with the notion that bird flu outbreaks don’t represent human health risks, said Lisa Bishop-Spencer, communications manager with Chicken Farmers of Canada.
“The message has always been… this is not a food safety issue, it is an animal health issue,” she said. “So that’s something that we want to continue to drive home, and what we’re seeing is that consumers have remained confident in their poultry products.”