The numbers surrounding the bird flu epidemic change each day. But they are staggering.
Early this week, the USDA was reporting 197 confirmed outbreaks among poultry flocks with losses of 44.6 million fowl, many of them egg-laying hens.
The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) predicts the number of birds affected will climb to 50 million over the next four months.
Egg prices are rising amidst fear of shortages. Reuters reports nearly 30 per cent of U.S. breaker eggs — which includes liquid, dried or frozen eggs used by food manufacturers — have disappeared, leaving processors scrambling to find alternative sources of supply or egg alternatives. There is already speculation that the cost of a Thanksgiving turkey will be higher in the fall.
Twelve per cent of the nation’s egg-laying capacity has been wiped out in a matter of weeks.
Ironically, it is also causing a glut of chicken and lower meat prices because cheap feed increased the supply of poultry meat just as the bird flu struck and export markets started closing their borders.
The effect on grain markets is just emerging. Not only are producers who have had to depopulate barns selling off the feed grains they had in storage, but the decline in production as the industry recuperates from depopulation, cleanup and quarantines will reduce the demand for feed for years. Analysts say that once this is over, it will take up to two years for the layer sector to recover and rebuild. Grain prices were already pressured.
Some analysts are predicting the egg supply squeeze will cost consumers upwards of $8 million in higher costs. The cost of “breaker eggs” used in processing has tripled since April when the first egg-laying flock was identified. Grocery store eggs have risen from US$1.19 a dozen to over $2 a dozen over the past month, wire services report.
Then there is the cost of containment, cleanup and producer compensation — in the hundreds of millions. State officials in Indiana are training prison inmates to help with euthanizing birds and cleaning up the aftermath. The stench of dead birds is so overpowering, neighbours are leaving the infected areas in Iowa. Poultry exhibitions are being cancelled at state fairs.
People are afraid to ride their bicycles near waterways for fear their tires might pick up contaminated feces and spread it further. As one resident said, the family assumes “that wherever we go, the entire environment is contaminated,” according to Reuters. Affected producers and processors are laying off their workers for lack of work.
Yet there continues to be references in the media to the U.S., with its highly consolidated and concentrated system, as being a “low-cost” producer.
Globally, these outbreaks are rising. The OIE reports that bird flu outbreaks have surfaced in 28 countries so far in 2015, up from 19 countries in 2014 and 14 countries in 2013.
With small outbreaks in B.C. and Ontario, Canada has not been spared. But our system here has been able to keep it contained — so far. Some have credited supply management, which has resulted in a larger number of smaller operations that are widely dispersed. That’s food for thought.
However, we sit on the same migratory bird routes, which are believed to be how the virus spreads from one region to another. There is already speculation that another outbreak could surface as the weather cools off in the fall. There are concerns these viruses could mutate to become a public health issue too.
In light of all this, it is important to remember, this is a man-made problem.
We can’t blame the birds. These viruses are constantly evolving in the environment. In the wild, the birds adapt and for the most part, survive — although they continue to carry the virus.
As pointed out by Earl Brown, a professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa who spent most of his career studying the relationship between birds and viruses, modern poultry production methods have created an ideal environment for these viruses to mutate into more virulent forms. Housing million of birds in close proximity makes it possible for the viruses to quickly move from bird to bird, changing as they go.
As well, disease containment efforts euthanize all birds, including the ones that might have survived — so no natural immunity evolves. Instead, the population becomes ever more vulnerable.
News stories emerged in recent weeks about contaminated sites in Iowa at which biosecurity was either lax or absent. Some state authorities are considering road barricades.
But it is doubtful that more biosecurity will prove to be more than a stop-gap measure. It’s time to rethink poultry production methods.