U.S. poultry industry braces for bird flu fallout

Stephen R Ausmus/USDA-ARS Chickens are raised in an indoor facility in this file photo. Industry officials say the discovery of avian flu in an Oregon flock could have ramificatioins for poultry exports.

A backyard flock of chickens, geese and guinea fowl infected with a highly contagious strain of avian influenza in Winston, Ore., may have adverse consequences for commercial poultry producers throughout the country, the head of the U.S. Poultry and Egg Export Council says.

Federal and state officials are trying to prevent global implications by containing the outbreak, the first of its type in the U.S. in more than a decade, to one man’s yard.

“It’s probably going to be a problem anyway because some countries aren’t going to properly distinguish between backyard and commercial,” export council President James Sumner said. “This likely will have repercussions that will likely impact the entire U.S. industry.”

The Oregon Department of Agriculture announced Friday that guinea fowl and chickens being raised in Douglas County died from highly pathogenic H5N8 avian influenza.

The 100-bird flock had access to the outdoors. There’s a pond and marsh on the property, suggesting the domestic birds came in contact with virus-carrying wild birds.

“It’s a great spot for migratory waterfowl,” ODA spokesman Bruce Pokarney said. “It’s in the Pacific flyway, and we have southern migration going on.”

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Michelle Dennehy said wild birds can carry and survive the disease, even though it’s highly lethal to domestic birds.

“Wild birds have evolved with avian influenza. They don’t usually die or exhibit illness,” she said.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza this month has forced 11 British Columbia poultry farms to be quarantined, causing the loss of 245,600 chickens and turkeys, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

This week, the Washington Department of Agriculture reported a wild northern pintail duck found at Wiser Lake 3 miles southwest of Lynden in Whatcom County died of highly pathogenic H5N2. A captive gyrfalcon that was fed a wild duck shot at the same lake died from highly pathogenic H5N8.

Officials suspect that ducks that breed in Alaska and northeast Asia have spread the highly pathogenic H5A8 strain to the U.S. for the first time. H5A8 in its highly contagious form appeared in South Korea, Japan and China early this year. In November, the strain appeared for the first time in Europe.

After breeding, northern pintail ducks migrate both toward Europe and North America.

Although the virus sweeping through B.C. has been identified as H5N2, Canadian authorities said Wednesday that the strain shares some gene segments with the Eurasian H5N8 strain.

The USDA said Friday it has reported the Oregon case to the World Organization of Animal Health.

“USDA is working with trading partners to minimize trade impacts on poultry and poultry products as much as possible,” according to a USDA statement.

Many countries, including the United States, have imposed restrictions on Canadian poultry and eggs.

USDA has quarantined the Winston yard and will dispose of any surviving birds.

Outbreaks of less dangerous low pathogenic avian influence occur more frequently, including this year in California.

The last outbreak of highly pathogenic bird flu in the United States was in 2004, when 7,000 chickens in Texas were infected. It was the first such outbreak in 20 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The export council’s Sumner said the poultry industry has feared a more lethal and contagious bird flu would strike among backyard flocks that have contact with migrating birds.

“This is what we tell our people on an ongoing basis,” he said. “There are advantages to operating indoors and under confinement.”

Pokarney praised the Winston bird owner for reporting an unusual number of deaths Monday.

“He had found 20 of his 27 guinea fowl were dead and had died very, very quickly,” Pokarney said. “He was very responsible and very quick to report it.”

A USDA veterinarian drove bird samples to Corvallis, where they were tested at Oregon State University. The tests showed the birds had died from avian influenza. Further tests conducted at a USDA lab in Ames, Iowa, pinpointed that it was the H5N8 strain.

Sumner said trading partners are increasingly sensitive to bird flu reports. Currently, China bans imports from five states because of cases of low pathogenic bird flu, he said.

Officials stress that H5N2 and H5N8 viruses have not been linked to any human health problems. Poultry and eggs from infected areas are safe for human consumption if properly cooked, officials say.

Sumner said he hopes the USDA and U.S. poultry industry can show global markets that bird flu has not spread to commercial suppliers. Still, he said he’s concerned countries will use the Oregon case as a pretext for imposing trade barriers.

“Unfortunately, this could give some countries the excuse they’re looking for to play unfair,” he said.

In Washington, WSDA officials are trying to keep bird flu from showing up in backyard and commercial flocks.

WSDA officials Thursday hosted a meeting in Lynden attended by about 65 people. Officials stressed the importance of keeping wild birds away from poultry and reporting sick or dead poultry.

The WSDA plans within the next two weeks to set up a center at the Northwest Washington Fairgrounds in Lynden for poultry owners to bring in their birds for testing, department spokesman Hector Castro said.

ODA tests for avian influenza at the state’s only live bird market in Woodburn.

“Steps are being taken to contain the disease and we have not diagnosed avian influenza elsewhere in Oregon’s domestic poultry population, but the presence of the virus in migratory waterfowl poses a potential risk to our backyard poultry,” Oregon State Veterinarian Brad LeaMaster said in a written statement.

Information

Oregon backyard flock owners can report sick birds to the state veterinarian’s office at 1-800-347-7028 or can call USDA toll free at 1-866-536-7593.

Wild bird deaths can be reported to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife toll-free line at 1-866-968-2600.

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