Osceola County facility must euthanize 5.3 million hens, avian influenza brings egg production to halt

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Iowa Department of Agriculture, the USDA and an area egg producer are developing a plan to destroy 5.3 million egg-laying hens after a confirmed presence of avian influenza in Osceola County.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey's office confirmed the avian flu outbreak on Monday. Osceola County producers noticed increased mortality among its egg-laying hens. Samples were sent to South Dakota State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory for preliminary testing, according to Northey's office. A lab in Ames confirmed the result.

The HPAI H5 infections can be devastating to domestic bird flocks. Northey expects the Osceola County facility to be quarantined for months. Other birds in the area will be affected as well.

"We will reach out to all of the folks within six miles of that site -- all of the folks that would have birds, whether they're a commercial operation or whether they're a backyard operation -- and we'll take samples from those sites," Northey said. "The birds are quarantined, so they're not to move. We'll test those birds to make sure they don't have avian influenza now, and then test those birds again after 21 days to make sure they haven't contracted it since our first test. After that, we are able to move birds out of that quarantine."

Shelled eggs can't be shipped out of the Osceola County facility, but liquid egg product could be transported following a pasteurization process, according to Northey.

The virus has yet to be detected in humans and the risk to people is considered "low" by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Iowa Department of Public Health.

"It's certainly very easy -- when they see all of the effort we go through -- to think there is some kind of impact to people," Northey said. "It's always repeated and we should keep repeating it: There is no concern about the disease spreading to humans, either by connection with the birds themselves or if there would be any food safety issues."

Avian influenza can be carried by wild birds, including ducks and geese. Waterfowl can spread the disease without showing any symptoms. People should avoid contact with sick or dead poultry or wildlife. A change of clothes and hand-washing, with soap and water, are urged before contact with healthy domestic poultry and birds.

Monday's announcement marks the second time avian flu has been detected in the state's commercial poultry population. A commercial flock of 27,000 turkeys in Buena Vista County recently had to be destroyed after tests revealed avian flu in the birds.

Iowa is a top turkey producer and the No. 1 state in the nation for egg production.

Northey's office said all bird owners, including commercial producers or backyard flock owners, should continue to practice good biosecurity. Contact between their birds and wild birds should be avoided. Sick birds or unusual bird deaths should be reported to state and federal officials. Contact numbers include the state veterinarian at 515-281-5321 or the USDA at 1-866-536-7593.


MARKET IMPACT

The farm in Osceola County has nearly 10 percent of the state's egg-laying hens. Iowa is home to roughly 59 million hens that lay nearly one in every five eggs consumed in the country.

Egg industry marketing experts say it's too early to predict the impact on prices, but say it's unlikely to immediately cause a spike or a shortage, because number of chickens that are to be euthanized is a little more than 1 percent of the nation's egg layers.

"Don't panic. Let's wait and see," said poultry industry consultant Simon Shane, who also teaches poultry science and veterinary medicine at North Carolina State University. He added that if 20 million to 30 million hens are infected, consumers could start seeing prices rise.

Several Midwestern states have been affected by the outbreaks, costing turkey and chicken producers nearly 7.8 million birds since March. The virus was first detected in Minnesota, the country's top turkey-producing state, in early March and the H5N2 virus has since shown up on commercial farms in Arkansas, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. On Monday, the virus was confirmed in another turkey farm in Minnesota and a backyard flock of mixed birds in Wisconsin.

The Osceola County farm provides shell eggs and liquid egg products to the market.

"It may not have a direct effect on shell egg pricing but any time you take production out of a marketplace there's likely to be some consequence," Iowa Poultry Association Executive Director Randy Olson said. "I anticipate the market and production will recover, but right now we're reminding people that this is not a food safety issue and it's not a human health issue."

Olson said he's confident authorities have identified the extent of the outbreak and have a plan to control it.

The chickens on the large operation reside in more than 20 houses, said Dustin Vande Hoef, a spokesman for Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey.

"It's a huge challenge for this producer and highlights the importance of biosecurity and other producers trying to take steps to limit the spread of this disease," he said.

-- David Pitt, Associated Press

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