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Close to record in poultry deaths from US bird flu; type of virus complicates the fight

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by Tom Polansek

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Record numbers of U.S. chickens and turkeys died in this year’s avian flu outbreak, as a different species from the farmers with whom the virus was previously fought was transmitted to more wild birds who later contracted the disease.

More than 47 million birds died due to infections and culling. This spurred export bans, lowered egg and turkey production, and contributed to record prices for staples ahead of the US holiday season. The pandemic is exacerbating the economic pain for consumers struggling with rising inflation.

In 2015, 50.5 million birds died in the country’s deadliest U.S. epidemic, the worst animal health event to date.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) chief veterinary officer Rosemary Sifford said farmers are battling a subspecies of the H5N1 strain of the virus, which survives throughout the summer when rising temperatures typically reduce bird flu.

In an interview, he said that the same subspecies known as the goose/Guangdong lineage has spread across Europe. Europe, where around 50 million poultry have been culled, is already experiencing its worst avian flu crisis.

Sifford said officials are finding more in a wider range of wild birds, such as subspecies ducks, than in the past, and living longer in birds. A high threat for infections could persist into the summer of 2023 as they migrate, he said.

The United States tracks wild birds on four migratory routes formerly known as two routes for bird flu, and plans to do the same next year.

“This virus may be present in wild birds for the foreseeable future,” Sifford said. Said. “This is definitely different.”

The outbreak has infected twice as many flocks in 42 states since February, according to USDA records. Infections slowed over the summer this year but did not stop as they did in 2015.

The tenacity of the virus has taken some manufacturers by surprise, who have improved cleanliness and safety in barns since the 2015 outbreak.

“Unfortunately, what we did probably wasn’t enough to protect us from this high viral load in the wild bird population,” Sifford said. Said.

SAVE TURKEY PRICES

Minnesota, the country’s top turkey-producing state, contracted the infection in two commercial flocks in late August after being without cases for three months, according to USDA data. The state later saw more cases in September.

“Seeing an increase in August was not expected,” said Ashley Kohls, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Breeders Association.

It takes about six months to decontaminate farms and restart turkey production after infections, Kohls said.

Minnesota-based Hormel Foods Corp, owner of the Jennie-O Turkey Store brand, said it expects bird flu to reduce turkey production by at least March 2023.

“We’ve worked really hard, but frankly, it’s still a problem,” Hormel CEO James Snee said on a conference call last month.

The American Farm Bureau said retail prices for fresh boneless, skinless turkey breasts reached a record $6.70 per pound last month, up 112% from the previous year and 14% above the previous record in 2015.

Turkey meat production will drop 6% this year from 2021 to 5.2 billion pounds, according to the USDA.

Faced with high costs for feed and labor, US farmers had been reducing production before the outbreak due to falling profits. Stocks of turkey breast in cold storage have hit a record low this year, according to USDA data.

Indiana turkey farmer Greg Gunthorp said grocery stores, online retailers and other buyers are calling to look for whole turkeys and breasts. Antibiotic-free turkey breasts retail for $7-9 per pound wholesale, he said, compared to about $3 before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The turkey market right now is the craziest market I’ve ever seen,” said Gunthorp.

Infections in flocks triggered export restrictions on US poultry, further damaging producers. The U.S. Poultry and Egg Export Council said China, a major buyer, is blocking poultry from all states with confirmed cases, and it’s taking longer than necessary to lift bans.

China this month suspended imports of poultry from Arkansas, the third-largest producer of meat-raised chickens, after the state reported its first infection of the year, USDA records show. Wes Ward, the state’s secretary of agriculture, said he hopes Arkansas can prevent the disease.

“The virus has changed,” Ward said. “Hopefully it’s one of those places where the virus will burn itself in a year or so and maybe things will calm down again.”

(Reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago; editing by Caroline Stauffer and David Gregorio)

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