Food Service & Agriculture and Health Care

Poultry industry on alert for bird flu

A new strain from Asia may be spread by migrating waterfowl.

May 1, 2015
| By Pete Daly |
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Bird Flu chickens
More than 15 million birds in 13 states had been affected by the avian flu virus as of last week. ©Thinkstock.com

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) A new strain of bird flu suspected of being spread by migrating waterfowl is decimating commercial poultry operations in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, but has not yet been reported in Michigan.

Michigan state government and the poultry industry are on high alert, although longstanding rigorous bio-security precautions in effect at Michigan farms for years are expected to provide significant protection.

The highly contagious avian influenza virus was discovered to have killed several layers at a Daybreak Foods egg farm last week in Lake Mills, Wis., leading to the euthanization of all 800,000 birds there. It was the second Jefferson County poultry facility to test positive for the avian flu since mid-April.

The USDA reported last week a Wisconsin turkey farm with more than 1 million birds had tested positive for the H5N2 virus.

About 6 million birds had been affected in Iowa as of last week, pushing the national count to more than 15 million birds in 13 states, according to news services.

“There are currently no cases of avian influenza in the state of Michigan,” said Jennifer Holton, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development, last week.

“This is something we are closely monitoring,” added Holton. “We are preparing to respond quickly if it comes to the state of Michigan.”

Holton said the outbreaks have been in the province of Ontario and the states that are in the Mississippi flyway used by migrating waterfowl each fall and spring.

“There are some strains (of bird flu) that can cause human illness, but this one has not shown that. That’s good news,” said Mick Fulton of the MSU diagnostic lab, one of the key professionals in the state monitoring the situation closely. Fulton is an associate professor of avian diseases at MSU.

Several years ago an earlier strain of the avian flu, H5N1, was active in Asia and did infect and kill some people there.

Fulton said the new strain of avian flu was not seen in the U.S. until December, beginning on the West Coast. It is believed to be spread in the dropped feces of migratory waterfowl.

According to Holton, the MSU Extension Service is working to reach people who keep chickens in their backyards to let them know their small flocks are apparently at greatest risk. MSU Extension has launched a social media educational campaign to teach those people what disease symptoms to look for.

“People with chickens in the backyard are at risk because they aren’t aware of the disease and they don’t have any bio-security plans. They just let their chickens run free,” said Fulton.

Chickens and turkeys at a commercial facility are kept inside and are not readily subject to fecal infection from birds flying overhead. Fulton also noted backyard chicken owners who have a pond on their property might be at greater risk due with the water attracting waterfowl that could be infected.

“Our commercial poultry industry — and the commercial poultry industry in the U.S. in general — has bio-security programs in place that are designed to stop diseases that can spread easily from animal to animal,” said Fulton.

According to the Michigan Allied Poultry Industries association in Lansing, the Herbruck egg farm in Ionia County is the largest egg producer in Michigan and the 12th largest in the nation. Val Vail-Shirey, executive director of the association, said there are eight large commercial egg producers in Michigan, with a total of 14.8 million hens.

“Every one of them is a family-run farm,” added Vail-Shirey.

Michigan ranks seventh in the nation in egg production, with annual sales estimated to total about $300 million.

She said Michigan also produces about 5 million turkeys annually, with about 17 growers organized in a West Michigan-based cooperative, Michigan Turkey Producers, which has major processing plants in Grand Rapids and Wyoming. Michigan ranks 15th among turkey-producing states, and Michigan Turkey exports to South Africa, Mexico, China, Taiwan, Canada, Western Samoa, Dominican Republic and Russia.

Vail-Shirey said members of the MAPI “are doing everything possible” to protect their flocks from infection, but it is a routine that is always followed, even when there is no known outbreak of bird flu. She said there is no movement allowed of anyone — including all employees, even executive management — from one poultry facility to another.

Employees reporting to work at a poultry barn are required to shower before entering and wear sanitized clothing — “bio-security garments,” according to Vail-Shirey. At the end of the shift, they shower again before leaving. She said their vehicles are parked off-premises, with transportation provided to and from those parking lots.

“When you have millions of birds, you are going to have the highest care for those animals,” she said.

Although avian diseases can wreak sudden havoc on immense concentrations of birds, MSU’s Fulton said there are some encouraging points of which to be aware. One is that the avian influenza virus “is really easy to kill.” Ordinary washing of hands with soap and water can kill the virus, and it is also readily killed by sunlight, heating and cooking, and “any disinfectant,” according to Fulton.

He also noted that, in cases where infections do materialize, the meat and eggs of those birds will be destroyed under government supervision.

“It will not go into the human food chain — or even pet food,” said Fulton.

Michigan has had avian influenza detected in blood tests at commercial poultry operations at least twice: first in 2002 and again several years ago, according to Fulton. The state took corrective action at those times.

Fulton also noted when the turkey producers formed their cooperative, they voluntarily put in place a monitoring program intended to stop the spread of any disease detected when live birds are transported for slaughter and processing.

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