DES MOINES, Iowa – Egg prices reached record levels on Friday after a bird flu outbreak decimated the flock, leading to the death of more than 20 million egg-laying hens over the last month in the top producing state of Iowa.
The virus spread appears to have slowed but not stopped. Federal officials are planning an aggressive educational campaign to improve biosecurity around infected barns after tests have shown the disease is spreading from farm to farm.
Officials studying the worst bird flu outbreak in the U.S. say they’re learning about the virus that has led to 40 million dead birds — mostly turkeys and egg-laying chickens — either from the disease or euthanized to prevent its spread. Following are some answers to questions about the current status of the outbreak.
WILL EGG PRICES KEEP GOING UP?
Yes, in the short term at least. With egg supplies dwindling, the price of eggs used in food products and shell eggs we eat for breakfast will climb higher. Carton egg prices reached a record Friday of $2.32 a dozen for Midwest large eggs, said Rick Brown, a senior vice-president for Urner Barry, a commodity market analysis firm. That’s a 95 per cent increase in a month. The previous record was $2.27 set last Dec 4. Breaker eggs, those used to make ice cream, mayonnaise and other processed foods also set a record Friday. They reached the record $2.13 a dozen, up 238 per cent from 63 cents they were selling for on April 22 when the virus hit Iowa’s egg-laying hen population.
HOW IS THE INDUSTRY COPING?
Efforts are underway to begin importing eggs and egg products from Europe, a measure the industry turned to during a bird flu outbreak in Pennsylvania and Virginia in 1983 when 17 million chickens and turkeys died. The U.S. typically produces an ample supply with 87 billion table eggs produced last year. The nation exported 352 million dozen but with a shortage of supply due to bird flu, the U.S. is expected to begin importing in the next few months, Brown said. Producers in France and the Netherlands are likely among those who may be tapped to help the U.S. in a pinch.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE VIRUS?
This is the first time the H5N2 strain of the virus has been found in enough wild birds to spread it over wide areas in the United States. The environment around poultry houses has been tested and the virus has been found even around farms not infected so it is quite pervasive in the countryside where wild waterfowl crossed over while migrating north. The virus is surviving well in the cool wet conditions this spring in the upper Midwest. Initially it was believed infections came only from the ducks and other waterfowl carriers flying overhead dropping the virus in their feces. Genetic testing has shown that the virus has spread from farm to farm and has been dragged from one barn to another, said Dr. Jack Shere, a veterinarian and associate deputy administrator at the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the agency overseeing the bird flu outbreak.
WHAT DOES THAT SPREAD OF THE VIRUS MEAN?
Biosecurity efforts, no matter how much they’ve been improved, are not yet good enough. We know the virus is spread mechanically by humans and can be spread on clothing, shoes and vehicles entering and exiting farms. It also now appears that in some barns it was carried by air on cold, wet, windy days.
“We have to consider the outside environment as contaminated and to protect the poultry we have to put all kinds of hurdles in place to keep that virus from getting into the poultry houses,” Shere said.
CAN IT BE CONTAINED AND STOPPED?
It’s going to take more work. Biosecurity is expensive. It requires disinfecting vehicles as they come and go and equipping workers with clothing changes and shoe disinfectant. But when a farm is infected all the birds are killed to prevent it spreading, which costs more. The key issue is education, Shere said. “Some of the folks that take care of these barns are the lowest paid and the least educated. We need to be sure that they know that not only are they putting their jobs at risk if they spread this disease but the birds are going to die,” he said.
SO IS THE VIRUS HERE TO STAY?
There’s no way of knowing that for sure but various strains have been in Asia since at least 2008 and perhaps before that, and there have been recurrent outbreaks. One encouraging fact is that the virus does change. It mutates and officials are hoping it mutates into something that won’t infect the birds and kill them. It is also possible that the virus could mutate into something worse.
WILL WARMER SUMMER WEATHER HELP?
Yes. The current belief is that the H5N2 virus infecting birds in the Midwest begins to die at around 65 degrees and is completely dead at 85. Higher temperatures tend to dry out the virus and render it incapable of infecting birds. Temperatures consistently in the 70s should stop it. Iowa is expected to remain in 70s to low 80s for the next several days.
WHAT ARE THE NEXT STEPS?
USDA and industry will be working together during the summer to get everyone as prepared possible in hopes of minimizing commercial barn infections if the virus returns in the fall. Discussions between USDA officials and Congress will be held about what is needed to deal with the virus and how that will be funded. The current outbreak is estimated to cost U.S. taxpayers about $400 million, Shere said.