Bird Flu Strikes Major Turkey Farms in Utah and South Dakota, Fueling Fears of Industry-Wide Impact

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The highly contagious bird flu, fatal to commercial poultry, has emerged once again this season, first being seen in two leading turkey farms in Utah and South Dakota. The fresh outbreaks have raised fears of further encroachments in other commercial poultry establishments, taking the industry by storm.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed the presence of avian influenza in a flock of 47,300 turkeys from South Dakaotas’ Jerauld County on October 4, and another of 141,800 birds in Utah’s Sanpete County the following Friday. These are the premier reported incidents in the U.S. commercial flocks since two Dakota turkey farms were struck earlier in April this year. Standard procedure dictates the infected flocks’ elimination, with farms subsequently undergoing decontamination to stymie the virus spread.

Recently, the US has been seeing sporadic occurrences of bird flu in backyard flocks and wild birds like ducks, geese, and eagles. While wild birds often don’t exhibit avian flu symptoms, their infections concern the poultry industry as these migrating species can introduce the disease into susceptible commercial flocks.

South Dakota State Veterinarian, Beth Thompson, has expressed her concern over increasing cases, owing to the birds migratory patterns beginning.

America’s poultry producers last year yielded nearly 59 million birds across 47 states, affecting both egg-laying and meat chickens, and turkeys. Marking the deadliest outbreak in the nation’s history, the epidemic saw a drastic price surge in egg and turkey for consumers and cost the government in excess of US$660 million.

In contrast, the 2015 outbreak, the most expensive animal health disaster in U.S. history, caused the government over US$1 billion in costs while nearly 51 million birds in 15 states took the toll.

Bird flu infections within humans are relatively infrequent and pose no food safety threat. However, the virus’s ability to infect various species, including specific mammals, puts scientists on edge due to the potential for a mutation that could augment human transmission. Cambodian authorities recently reported the country’s third human fatality from bird flu this year.

U.S. Agriculture officials classify these outbreaks as part of last year’s crisis, having reached U.S. shores in February 2022 following a highly infectious stint throughout Europe. The U.S. has since placed intermittent restrictions on European poultry imports to prevent potential dissemination.

Bailee Woolstenhulme, spokesperson for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, advises bird owners to enhance their biosecurity practices since avian flu maintains its persistent presence in the avian community.

Producers have fortified their biosecurity measures for several years, leaving little room for additional preventive steps within their capacity. Their efforts center around disallowing any wild bird droppings from entering poultry barns via workers’ clothing, footwear, farm equipment, and smaller birds, or even getting carried within dust particles.

Utah reported its first bird flu case this year, whereas, last year, 16 turkey farms, an egg farm, and various backyard flocks had been affected. South Dakota poultry producers experienced close to 4 million bird losses last year, whilst Iowa, the most severely hit state, lost around 16 million birds, with no new cases since March.

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