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New Study Says Bird Flu Spread By Wind, Humans, Fowl

Peggy Lowe
Harvest Public Media

Agriculture officials don’t know just how the massive outbreak of avian flu in the Midwest was spread, but believe the culprits include humans breaking biosecurity measures and the virus going airborne.

Up to this point, officials had blamed the introduction and spread of the virulent highly pathogenic H5N2 virus on migratory birds. A preliminary study released Monday said researchers had found no “specific pathway” that lead to the largest outbreak of avian influenza in the U.S.

Most interesting was a finding “supporting the idea that the virus can be transmitted through air.” Researchers found that the virus was spread up to a half-mile (700 to 1,000 meters) during two windy days that “appeared to be related to clusters of outbreaks five to seven days later."

Scientists knew from past cases that the bird flu virus could be carried in the wind, on dust or feathers, for just a few hundred feet, said T.J. Myers, associate deputy administrator of veterinary services for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

“If we are seeing spread from farm-to-farm that’s further apart than that, this would be something that we haven’t seen before, at least over those distances,” Myers said in a phone interview.

An airborne virus means companies would have to change some procedures in their large barns that can house tens of thousands of birds. For instance, the companies might need to change their ventilation systems, Myers said, placing filters or blocks on the large vents and fans on the poultry barns.

The largest outbreak of bird flu in the U.S. has ravaged the egg and turkey industries in the upper Midwest, resulting in the killing of nearly 47 million birds. The virus has not spread to humans and scientists say that risk is very low. (Click here for the USDA’s fact sheet on avian influenza.)

Although Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack had speculated earlier that the virus might have been spread by humans, USDA veterinarians hadn’t yet pointed to possible spreading by, for instance, workers on the farms or those driving trucks between infected areas.  The study confirmed that biosecurity measures were broken.

“APHIS has observed sharing of equipment between an infected and non-infected farm, employees moving between infected and non-infected farms, lack of cleaning and disinfection of vehicles moving between farms, and reports of rodents or small wild birds inside poultry houses."

The current outbreak and rapid spread by “environmental factors" has changed the mantra of biosecurity, Myers said. Instead of trying to prevent the disease from coming on a property, now producers must be concerned about the pathogen moving from barn to barn on each farm.

“What that means is producers have to think a little bit differently about biosecurity in this case,” he said. “It’s not at the farm gate where you need to be concerned. It’s at the barn door.”

“I think the product is out there. You’re just going to have to pay for it,” said Brian Moscogiuri, an egg industry analyst with Urner Barry. “That’s the bottom line. That’s supply and demand.”

Liquid egg prices have shot up 240 percent, Moscogiuri said, because the center of the lethal bird flu outbreak was in Iowa, the country’s largest egg-producing state. Most of the 47 million birds killed because of the outbreak were part of “breaker” operations, an on-farm process in which chickens lay the eggs, which are then broken, liquefied, and frozen or dried.

The outbreak is effecting grocery store shell eggs, too. In some part of the country the price has tripled, with a carton of a dozen peaking at $3. One Texas grocery chain is rationing eggs.

The price spikes come even as agriculture officials believe the outbreak is slowing. On Tuesday, the first turkey farm that was infected got back online in Minnesota. But on Monday, the first case of bird flu was reported in Michigan, with a Canada goose testing positive for the disease.

The outbreak of highly pathogen H5N2 flu has now spread to 21 states, infecting 298 sites. Scientists watching the spread are surprised at how quickly the virus has moved, especially since it’s historically known to be more contagious in the fall.

The crisis comes at an unfortunate time for the egg industry, which has enjoyed record per capita consumption during the last few years, Moscogiuri said, thanks to the popular protein diets.

“Eggs were really becoming the good guy in the protein industry,” he said.

Fast-food chains are also taking a hit, just as some are adding or extending breakfast hours. Yet most companies haven’t increased prices because of their fixed-price menus, said Todd Kuethe, an agricultural economist at the University of Illinois.

“The price of your Egg McMuffin is not going to change but McDonald’s input change on that has gone up considerably in the past month,” he said.

A quarter of McDonald’s revenue comes from that first meal, business so good the global chain is testing an all-day breakfast menu. But the outbreak has not affected McDonald’s, which is using its regular suppliers and its contingency plans are always in place, said Lisa McComb, a McDonald’s spokeswoman.

“Our ability to provide our customers eggs is not impacted,” McComb wrote in an email. “McDonald’s is not finding new sources for eggs, nor are we making changes to how we source eggs.”

Kuethe and others are optimistic thatthe worst of the outbreak is over because the number of bird flu cases has slowed in the last few weeks. Egg prices will likely go down – but not for months, as the flocks rebuild. The infected farms have to sit idle for six weeks after the birds are destroyed and young hens – called pullets – don’t begin laying eggs until they’re about five months old.

Supplies should also grow somewhat thanks to new imports from the Netherlands, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved last week. The only other country that imports eggs to the U.S. is Canada, but officials have said they may open trade to other countries if supplies continue to remain tight.

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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