OMAHA, Neb. – An outbreak of bird flu in the US that has killed more than 40 million chickens and turkeys and helped spike egg and meat prices appears to be waning, but experts warn the virus hasn’t gone away and fear it may that another rise could occur this fall.
The number of Birds killed to limit spread fell from a peak of nearly 21 million in March to less than 800,000 in May. However, more than 2 million birds have already been killed 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 coming to an end,” said Richard Coker, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. “We remain vigilant and encourage producers to continue to practice strong biosecurity.”
Some state and industry officials are optimistic the outbreak is ending, though no one is ready to relax.
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig said the virus is still a risk because more cases are being reported, but “it really feels like we’re finished for this year.”
If a case of the highly pathogenic virus is found, officials kill the entire herd to limit its spread. The virus doesn’t differentiate between backyard herds and giant egg farms; Herds of all sizes have been infected.
Iowa, the state’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 migratory wild birds, blamed for spreading the virusmoved out of Iowa.
Nebraska lost nearly 4.9 million birds, Pennsylvania lost 4.2 million, and Colorado saw 3.6 million birds killed. Minnesota and Wisconsin each lost about 3 million.
A 2015 outbreak that killed 50 million turkeys and chickens remains the costliest animal health disaster in US history. The government then spent almost $1 billion to deal with infected birds, clean barns and compensate farmers. The USDA has approved $793 million to cover costs this year so far.
National Turkey Federation spokeswoman Beth Breeding said the state payments “prevent these losses from becoming catastrophic” but they don’t cover everything. For example, farmers are losing income because they cannot raise birds while their properties are being disinfected.
Food prices are up 10% overall this year, beating the 8.6% inflation reported last month. Egg prices rose the most, rising 32%, while poultry prices are up almost 17%. But agricultural economists say that while the bird flu outbreak has been a contributing factor, spikes in costs for feed, fuel and labor are much bigger factors.
It didn’t help that the outbreak peaked when demand for eggs was at its peak around Easter, sending prices higher.
But a relatively small portion of the nationwide herd was affected. The 40 million birds killed account for just 6% of chickens raised for egg production, 2.5% of turkeys and less than 1% of chickens raised for meat production.
Economists expect egg and meat prices to fall this summer as farms are able to rebuild their herds.
“I think there will 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 robust enough to survive the season, leading to a new outbreak if Wild birds migrate later in the year.
“Maybe we’ll have an even bigger peak this fall, who knows?” said University of Georgia researcher David Stallknecht. “The honest answer is we don’t know what the future holds, but the decline in reports of commercial poultry cases is encouraging.”
The prospects for an avian flu vaccine are uncertain; Foreign markets are reluctant to import meat from vaccinated birds, and vaccination can mask the presence of the virus, meaning farmers would have to spend more to step up testing of their flocks. And vaccinated birds can get sick just like vaccinated humans.
“Personally, I don’t see vaccines as something that’s going to be used in the United States,” said John Clifford, the former US chief veterinary officer who oversaw the USDA’s response to the 2015 outbreak. “Countries that don’t export may feel differently. We cannot afford to lose these markets.”
Farmers can do only limited things to stem the spread of bird flu. Farm workers are usually required to shower and change their clothes before entering a stall, and tools for each stall are stored separately.
Emily Metz, CEO of trade group American Egg Board, said some farmers have invested heavily in fighting the virus, including upgrading ventilation systems and installing laser light systems to repel wild birds.
“If it lasts or comes back, we’re prepared. We’re not letting up our vigilance,” Metz said. “The biosecurity improvements our producers have made are part of their day-to-day business.”
Associated Press reporter David Pitt contributed to this report from Des Moines, Iowa.
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https://www.local10.com/news/national/2022/06/16/bird-flu-outbreak-waning-but-threat-of-virus-lingers/ The bird flu outbreak is waning, but the virus threat remains