Nine states have experienced an outbreak of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in their commercial flocks, causing the loss of nearly 49 million birds this year (7.5 million turkeys and 41.7 million chickens), equal to about 3 percent of the U.S. supply of turkeys and 10 percent of laying hens.  Another 12 states have seen the virus in their backyard flocks and wild birds, raising the threat of an even larger spread.

Poultry producers can expect new pressures from packaged goods manufacturers, retailers and consumers to ensure safe and available products are in the supply chain and delivered to consumers. Fortunately, consumer safety is not an issue with this virus since it has so far not infected humans. Good food preparation and hygiene practices, as are already recommended for all handling of raw poultry, will effectively kill the virus along with other foodborne threats, such as salmonella and campylobacter.

The ability to track poultry throughout the supply chain is increasingly important for manufacturers, retailers and consumers in order to help ensure adequate supplies of poultry products.  Egg prices have risen sharply and some retail suppliers are restricting purchases to only a few dozen per customer.  Many restaurants are adjusting their menu offerings and breakfast hours to offset the shorter supply of eggs and increased prices.

UL’s Dr. Scott Harris, a former federal on-scene coordinator at the EPA and now Director of EHS Advisory Services for UL’s Workplace Health and Safety Division, was in Iowa assisting the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and local farmers in limiting the impact of the outbreak. Harris, the deputy incident commander for the Iowa operation, recommends that poultry producers adopt stronger biosecurity practices to help ensure supply chain integrity. Once HPAI infects a production facility, some with as many as 10 million birds, a producer’s poultry cannot be saved, making prevention the only winning solution.

He stresses that a strict biosecurity plan is the most important tool for the control and eradication of the bird flu outbreaks. Biosecurity practices such as segregation, monitoring and disinfection create barriers between diseases and animals, reducing the risk of their introduction and widespread distribution.

Farmers and agricultural workforces need to protect poultry flocks from coming into contact with wild or migratory birds, as they are believed to be the original carriers of HPAI. Moreover, only essential workers and vehicles should be permitted to enter an agricultural operation. All vehicles, equipment, and personnel – particularly their footwear — that enter or leave a poultry site must be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected to prevent the spread of the virus to other facilities.

Harris says the USDA encourages close monitoring, looking for any signs of unusual behavior, such as lethargy or loss of appetite, among their birds and engaging the USDA for help if signs of illness or bird mortality rates suddenly increase.  The USDA can then prioritize laboratory sampling and testing of those flocks. Harris advises moving quickly since the virus can infect and kill an entire flock within days.