It’s been almost a month since a case of avian influenza was detected in poultry in the central United States. So it might seem that the epidemic—which over several months caused the destruction of 49.5 million chickens and turkeys—can safely be considered over.
But in fact, it may have only taken a break. And if it returns, as some experts predict it will, what one government official calls “the largest animal-health emergency in this country’s history” may turn out to be just an opening act. At risk, the next time, will be not just the egg and turkey farms of the Midwest, but the billions of birds being raised in the poultry-producing centers on the east and west coasts—effectively, most of the poultry economy of the United States.
And attempts to prevent it, by developing a vaccine, may paradoxically turn out to be almost as devastating—because international trading partners say they will bar imports of any birds vaccinated against the disease.
The dire uncertainty that surrounds bird flu emerged last week at a hearing held by the Senate Committee on Agriculture to examine how the epidemic unfolded and why it spread. (Here’s my earlier post from when the epidemic was still going on.) Just the numbers are jaw-dropping: To stop the movement of the disease, Dr. John Clifford, deputy administrator of the federal Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, testified that 42 million chickens and 7.5 million turkeys were killed. Those numbers equal 10 percent of the egg-laying hens in the entire United States, and 3 percent of the turkeys.
The cost of those lost birds, according to economist Thomas Elam of the Indiana-based consulting group FarmEcon, was $1.57 billion—but the further costs to businesses that support farms, to egg and poultry wholesalers, and to food service firms, pushed the loss to $3.3 billion. In addition, Clifford said, the US Department of Agriculture committed $500 million to emergency efforts to block the disease, and paid out $190 million to farmers whose birds were destroyed.
Brad Moline, a third-generation turkey farmer from Manson, Iowa, used the impact of the epidemic on his family’s farm as an example of what turkey growers face from avian flu. The Molines were forced to destroy their entire flock, 56,000 turkeys housed in 12 barns, wiping out at least two-thirds of their income for the year. Once a flock is destroyed, the birds have to be composted and the barns disinfected, and farmers cannot restock with baby birds (“poults,” if they are turkeys) until they get the all-clear. That’s if they can find birds to grow at all: Unlike poultry producers, turkey farms may grow just one crop per year, and the hatcheries that supply the poults aim to hatch them only when they are needed—which was much earlier in the year than now. “If we are lucky, we will be able to salvage this year with one flock, which we hope to repopulate sometime around August 1,” he told the committee."