The Bird Flu Epidemic Is Causing Poultry Prices to Soar. How Bad Will It Get?


The largest epidemic of bird flu in seven years has led to the destruction of nearly 13 million chickens and turkeys.


Karrastock

Inflation isn’t the only thing driving up your grocery store bill: Outbreaks of bird flu across the East Coast and Midwest have forced poultry farmers to kill nearly 13 million birds since February.

The epidemic could cause chicken, turkey and egg prices to soar in the coming months.

After circulating for months in Asia and Europe, highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) has been detected in commercial and backyard farms in at least 16 states, according to the US Department of Agriculture. With no treatment for the fast-acting and lethal infection, farmers are forced to cull hundreds of thousands — sometimes millions — of birds that may have been exposed to check the spread of the disease. 

No humans have tested positive in the US yet, but the economic toll could be major: A massive 15-state outbreak in 2015 resulted in the killing of nearly 50 million chickens and turkeys, costing the poultry industry more than $1.5 billion and causing egg prices to nearly double.

Here’s what you need to know about the current bird flu outbreak, including how the virus is transmitted, what the outbreak means for consumers and if it poses a threat to humans.

What is bird flu?

Bird flu is caused by avian influenza Type A viruses, which spread naturally among waterfowl and can infect wild birds, domestic poultry and other animals, though rarely humans.

There are more than a dozen strains of bird flu, which are classified as either “low pathogenic” or “highly pathogenic,” depending on their ability to spread disease and kill poultry. 

The strain bombarding the US right now, Eurasian H5N1, is considered highly pathogenic.

How is bird flu transmitted?

The main source of infection is through migratory waterfowl, such as ducks and geese.  “They get infected but don’t get sick,” Denise Derrer, public information director for the Indiana State Board of Animal Health, told CNET. “Then they shed the virus in their droppings or wherever the land.” 

Canadian geese

Burazin

That means the spread could peak in a few weeks, when spring migration reaches its high point, and may not abate until June, when migratory birds settle into their summer breeding grounds.

How the virus gets from barn to barn is still not entirely clear, though. That makes it hard to get a grip on the situation, according to Dr. Yuko Sato, a professor at Iowa State’s department of veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine.

“There’s no concluded study on how it’s coming in,” Sato told NPR. “We can identify some weak links — for example, people tracking it in.” 

Where have bird flu outbreaks been detected?

The current strain of H5N1 was first reported in Asia and Europe. In the UK, eggs can no longer be labeled free-range because hens have been cooped up for months to avoid infection.

Since the USDA confirmed the first US case in a wild duck in South Carolina in mid-January, infections have been reported in commercial farms and backyard flocks in Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

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The presence of avian influenza at an egg farm in Palmyra, Wisconsin, forced producers to destroy nearly 3 million chickens.


Scott Olson/Getty Images

As a result, an estimated 12.6 million chickens and turkeys have been or will soon be “depopulated,” or killed, with more infections detected nearly every day. Among the worst outbreaks:

  • An outbreak at a poultry farm in Wisconsin this month will result in 2.7 million egg-laying chickens being killed. 
  • In Iowa, the US’ top poultry state, HPAI detected in a commercial flock resulted in the destruction of 5.3 million egg-laying chickens. Another recent outbreak led to the culling of almost 50,000 turkeys.
  • Tyson Foods had to cull about 240,000 chickens in Kentucky last month after avian influenza was found in a commercial farm.

Is bird flu dangerous to humans?

Human infection is rare, with fewer than 900 cases reported since 2003, according to the World Health Organization. Most have been among people working directly with infected birds.

Even if an infected chicken wound up at your local supermarket, avian influenza is not a foodborne disease, so you couldn’t contract it from eating contaminated poultry. 

bird flu

Scott Olson/Getty Images

As of March 7, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the current H5N1 bird flu situation “is primarily an animal health issue” with no human infections in the US.

But H5N1 has a very high mortality rate, and the longer and larger the wave of outbreaks, the higher the chances it could mutate into a strain that is more infectious to humans. So US health officials are closely monitoring the situation. 

The CDC has also produced a candidate vaccine virus as a precaution.

What happened during the last major bird flu outbreak?

Between December 2014 and June 2015, the first US bird flu epidemic led to more than 50 million chickens and turkeys being destroyed in what the USDA called “the largest poultry health disaster in US history.”

One in 12 turkeys died from either the virus or being culled, according to Gro Intelligence, along with one in eight egg-laying hens. Eighty percent of the birds — some 39 million — were euthanized between mid-April and mid-May 2015 alone, mostly in Midwestern states. 

chickens bird flu

Bruno Vincent/Getty Images

Prices quickly soared: In the first five weeks of the epidemic, wholesale chicken breast prices increased 17% domestically, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, and remained inflated for years.

The average cost of a dozen eggs in New York was 60% higher in the latter half of 2015 than it was a year prior. And exports plummeted sharply as numerous countries imposed import bans on US poultry.

How is the current epidemic affecting prices?

Rising inflation, supply chain issues and labor shortages have already caused meat prices to rise across the board. But the bird flu outbreaks are adding a premium on poultry: Between Feb. 18 and March 18, the wholesale price of broiler chickens shot up nearly 20%, while the price of pork only rose about 4% and beef actually became 3% cheaper.

How exactly outbreaks will affect pricing depends on which kinds of birds are hit hardest — egg-laying hens or birds raised for meat, says Grady Ferguson, a senior research analyst at Gro Intelligence. 

eggs

Karrastock

But concerns over supply disruptions “is keen on marketer’s minds,” according to the USDA’s most recent weekly market analysis, especially with Easter less than a month away. Last week, the wholesale price for a dozen eggs rose 10 cents, to $1.60, and it’s expected to keep climbing.

Biochemist Henry Niman has been mapping the locations of Eurasian H5N1 cases across the US.

“I think the number of the birds [killed] could be in the same ballpark” as the 2015 epidemic, Niman told CNET. “And I think price increases will be comparable, too.” 

How bad could the bird flu epidemic get?

This is the first major outbreak of HPAI in the continental US in seven years.

“If you look at the 2015 situation, at this point in the year there are a lot more wild birds now over a much wider area,” Niman said. “There’s more outbreaks already. It’s going to get much worse than it is now.”

Unlike during the 2015 epidemic, outbreaks have reached the Atlantic Flyway — a major north-south migratory corridor that stretches down the Atlantic Coast from Greenland to South America — and reached birds in the DelMarVa peninsula. 

chickens bird flu

 


Douglas Sacha

Poultry industry representatives say they’re enforcing strict protocols to control the spread of the virus, including limiting foot traffic on farms, avoiding the sharing of equipment, closing up any holes in barns and making sure water and feed are covered and contaminant-free.

But biochemist Niman says it won’t be enough.

“This is just a little skirmish — the major migration season hasn’t even hit yet,” Niman said. “The farms are gonna be carpet-bombed in a few weeks. I don’t think they’re gonna be able to control it, even with what they’ve learned.”