In a telephone press conference April 30, Iowa Department of Agriculture and USDA officials reported five new "probable" cases of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus. One of these northwest Iowa facilities houses 5.5 million laying hens, owned by Rembrandt Foods, one of the nation's largest egg suppliers.
These latest five suspected facilities are commercial poultry farms in Buena Vista, Sioux and Clay counties in northwest Iowa. Tests of the sick turkeys and chickens are being conducted at USDA's National Animal Disease Lab in Ames. If test results prove the five poultry operations have the virus, it will push to 17 the total number of outbreaks of bird flu during the past few weeks in Iowa. Twelve flocks were previously confirmed as having "bird flu" prior to the April 30 announcement.
An estimated 15 million chickens and turkeys to be destroyed
With Thursday's cases included, an estimated 15 million chickens and turkeys in Iowa would be destroyed. That's about 25% of Iowa's total number of egg producing hens in the state. All chickens and turkeys at the infected facilities are being euthanized to try to keep the disease from spreading to other poultry farms. Iowa is the nation's leading egg producer and ranks ninth in turkey production.
The 5.5 million egg laying hens at the Buena Vista County facility would be the nation's largest single outbreak. "Rembrandt Foods takes biosecurity and food safety very seriously," the company said in a statement. "Our focus over the past several weeks has been to diligently implement enhanced biosecurity procedures."
The risk to humans from the virus is considered to be low, according to the Centers for Disease Control. "No human infections from the virus have ever been detected," says Bill Northey, Iowa secretary of agriculture. "And there is no food safety risk for consumers. Commercial flocks and backyard flocks of poultry are being quarantined for 6.2 miles around each infected facility and the birds are tested for the disease."
Hopefully, warmer weather will reduce spread of the virus
Migrating waterfowl such as geese and ducks are thought to be spreading the disease in their droppings as they fly over the farms. Federal and state officials are investigating how the facilities are getting infected, despite strict biosecurity efforts. Some experts speculate that farmworkers are unknowingly transporting bird flu or it is spreading in dust or bird feathers blown by the wind.
As the calendar moves through spring and closer to summer—that should help, poultry specialists say. The virus has a hard time surviving in warm weather. "Warm, dry weather will hopefully reduce the virus's ability to spread," says Northey.
USDA and Iowa Department of Ag officials are helping the commercial facilities determine how to best depopulate and dispose of their chickens and turkeys. Many will be composted, says Northey. But the facilities could also take them to a landfill, incinerate them or send the birds to a rendering plant. In addition to Iowa, over a dozen other states have been hit with bird flu in some of their poultry flocks. Nationally, the tally of infected chicken and turkey farms has reached 100, with millions of chickens and other poultry infected and being destroyed.
Infected poultry facilities will be depopulated and cleaned
Infected facilities will have to be idled for months or maybe even up to a year before they are cleaned and declared free of the virus. Only then can chickens and turkeys be put back in the barns again. The Iowa Department of Ag and the Iowa Department of Public Health are working directly with poultry workers at the affected facilities to ensure proper precautions are being taken.
These virus strains can travel in wild birds without those birds appearing sick, says Randy Olson, executive director of the Iowa Poultry Association and the Iowa Egg Council. People should avoid contact with sick/dead poultry or wildlife, he says. If contact occurs, wash your hands with soap and water and change clothing before having any contact with healthy domestic poultry and birds.
If you have chickens, turkeys or ducks, pay attention to them
All bird owners, whether commercial producers or backyard flock owners, should continue to practice good biosecurity, prevent contact between their birds and wild birds, and report sick birds or unusual bird deaths to state/federal officials, either through their state veterinarian at 515-281-5321 or through USDA's toll-free number at 1-866-536-7593. Information is also posted on the Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship website www.iowaagriculture.gov/avianinfluenza.asp.
"Our message to all poultry owners, even those who own a single bird in the backyard, from chickens to turkeys to ducks, is to pay attention and follow biosecurity steps," Olson says. "Report signs of sick birds to a veterinarian or to the Iowa Department of Agriculture, if you suspect anything at all. It's up to everyone to be vigilant in their observation of their flock, looking for signs of sickness and working with a local vet to bring an end to this situation."Olson adds this caution: "It's an absolute necessity for everyone, including the public, to avoid going anywhere near these farms to prevent this disease from spreading.