Nearly 38 million birds in domestic flocks have died in highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) outbreaks coast-to-coast since early February, but USDA data suggests the threat is fading . One day in May, losses for the month were on track to be the lowest of the year. A viral disease that spreads best in cold weather, bird flu usually clears up with the onset of consistently warm weather.
Still, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Friday transferred an additional $400 million to the USDA animal health protection agency. The transfer doubled, to nearly $800 million, the funds available to fight HPAI and compensate owners of commercial herds.
“Continuing our national response to highly pathogenic avian influenza is critical to minimizing the impact on our nation’s poultry industry,” said Under Secretary Jenny Moffitt, whose portfolio includes animal and plant diseases.
Laying hens, 28.8 million in total, accounted for three out of four losses due to HPAI. The number of layers in the US flock was down 6% compared to a year ago because of avian flu. Often volatile, wholesale egg prices soared to nearly $3 for a dozen large eggs in the week leading up to Easter, doubling their price by then in 2021, but were trending lower. The national average wholesale price was $2.48 last week.
A USDA running count said 780,000 birds in commercial flocks died from HPAI or were culled so far in May, compared to 1.49 million birds in February, 20.96 million in March and 14.73 million in April. Only two outbreaks were reported at egg farms, totaling 151,000 hens in Pennsylvania, in May. As Memorial Day weekend approached, the most recent major outbreak was a turkey farm in Dakota County, Minnesota, where 57,000 turkeys were raised for human consumption.
HPAI was last detected during the 2014-2015 outbreak, arguably the worst animal disease outbreak in US history, on June 15, 2015, at an egg farm in Iowa. Some 43 million laying hens and pullets died along with 7.4 million turkeys.
“Control measures, along with an increase in warm weather, eventually interrupted HPAI transmissions, resulting in half of new cases in June 2015,” said a USDA report in 2016. “The response effort involved more than 3,000 federal, state, and contract employees, with nearly $850 million committed to compensation payments and response activities.”
HPAI is highly contagious and can quickly wipe out a herd. When the disease is confirmed, agriculture officials cull the infected flock and quarantine nearby poultry farms to try to prevent the disease from spreading. During the 2014-15 outbreak, poultry houses were cleaned and disinfected after flocks were culled. On average, according to the USDA report, it took 111 days from HPAI detection until a poultry farm was cleared to restock with new birds.
Poultry farmers overwhelmingly chose “the most inhumane method available to kill their flocks”, a method called stop ventilation plus heat, in February and March when HPAI was discovered, the anti-cruelty said. Animal Welfare Institute. “In the current epidemic, killing birds by causing heat stroke – once considered an option of last resort – has become the default solution, as producers cannot destroy considerable numbers of their animals quickly enough to control the spread of the disease.”
The most common method of slaughtering chickens during the 2014-2015 outbreak was to inject the barns with carbon dioxide. For turkeys, the common approach was to cover the birds with a water-based foam. The 2016 report said producers needed an average of 15.4 days to depopulate layer flocks “due to flock size and harsh conditions.”