Iowa's Bird Flu Prognosis

Apr 22, 2015

Roughly 3.8 million hens at a laying facility in northwest Iowa are being destroyed due to the presence of a highly pathogenic virus. H5N2, a strain of avian flu, was found Monday on at a commercial egg-laying facility in Osceola County doubling the number of affected birds nationwide. 

Originally the United States Department of Agriculture reported the Osceola flock's population to be 5.3 million birds. Rather that is the facility's capacity.

This is Iowa's second case of H5N2. Last week the virus struck a commercial turkey farm in Buena Vista County. 

This North American* outbreak of bird flu has hit the upper Midwest particularly hard. The United States Department of Agriculture reports more than 40 cases at commercial poultry operations this year and says containing the virus has started to stretch the agency's resources.

"We have an emergency reserved core of private practitioners or retired veterinarians often times that are willing to help us. And we’re beginning to call upon some of those folks to help," says Dr. John Clifford, the USDA's chief veterinary officer.

The virus, which presents low human health risks and no food safety concerns, is spread through the droppings of waterfowl. H5N2 is most present in birds that are part of the Mississippi flyaway, or migration route. 

Clifford says currently the USDA is surveying Mississippi flyway. The agency is requesting more funds to better track H5N2's spread amongst wild birds, which seem mostly unaffected by disease.

There might be a lull in the number of outbreaks during the summer since H5N2 lives better in cool weather. However, the USDA says H5N2’s spread will likely pick up again in the fall.

"If you look at some of the European experience, they talked about temperatures up around high of 60, 70 degrees for a good week or two before they started seeing a decline," says Clifford of the USDA. "It's likely to see additional cases in the fall and spring next year during when birds move south, and then move back north again." 

Minnesota, Iowa's neighbor to the north, has been hit the hardest with over 30 cases of H5N2. This week it snowed in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey says the Osceola facility is one of the state's larger egg producers. With nearly 60 million laying hens, Iowa leads the nation.

"The industry is certainly much larger than these losses, but these losses are significant," says Northey. "This can have an impact, we have seen some of our international markets that have restricted poultry products from the United States." 

China and South Korea are two countries that have banned U.S. poultry imports. The USDA projects poultry exports to be down by 8.5 percent in 2015, which is equates to roughly $400 million in trade. 

Prices are expected to drop domestically as there are more poultry products on the market. Related industries like poultry feed producers will also likely be affected. 

Back in Iowa, the chicken facility has been quarantined and any bird within a 10 kilometer radius will be tested for the virus. The eradication and cleanup of this flock of millions is expected to take a while.

The USDA provides compensation for euthanized birds and covers some cleaning costs. But the agency does not subsidize lost profits or provide payment for birds killed by the virus. 

"It's going to be a significant loss for the farmer at the end of the day," says Iowa Agriculture Secretary Northey. 

*An earlier version of this article stated the avian flu outbreak was "worldwide." In Europe and Asia, a strain called H5N1 is active. It mutated into H5N2 when it hit North America.