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Avian Flu Threat Looms over Texas Poultry Farmers

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The Avian flu has killed 50.54 million birds in 2022 | Image by Shutterstock

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Avian flu killed 50.54 million birds in 2022, breaking the former 50.50 million record witnessed last year.

The deadly infection can quickly proliferate among birds. To help control its spread, entire flocks are often culled once positive cases are identified. Flocks can number over a million birds at farms that raise egg-laying chickens.

The flu is partly responsible for the higher egg and turkey prices seen this holiday season, adding to consumer woes in the face of surging inflation across the economy.

The outbreak is not isolated to the United States. Across the pond, the UK and continental Europe are also experiencing a surge in the flu, disrupting supermarket shelves and forcing some regional grocers to limit egg purchases.

According to the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, one type of the flu, the riskier highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), was discovered in waterfowl in the Atlantic flyways in January of this year. The subsequent domestic outbreak was verified in February when infections were confirmed in a commercial turkey flock in Dubois County, Indiana.

Texas, for its part, confirmed its first case two months later, in early April. Across the country, 46 states have reported the infection impacting poultry and non-poultry flocs.

Wild birds, like ducks, spread the highly contagious flu through feces, feathers, or direct contact with poultry.

Shaun Oldenburger, a small game programmer director with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD), said, “It does seem like upland game birds have high susceptibility, and we have seen a fair amount of mortality occur in eagles, as well as black vultures … With anything that could prey on waterfowl, we’re seeing high susceptibility.”

Rosemary Sifford, the USDA’s chief veterinary officer, explained that separating chicken farms from wild bird populations is essential. “Wild birds continue to spread HPAI throughout the country as they migrate, so preventing contact between domestic flocks and wild birds is critical to protecting U.S. poultry,” she stressed.

An Avian flu outbreak in 2015 prompted farmers across the country to boost security measures and improve livestock disease management. That year, roughly three out 10 of cases were found to originate from wild birds. This year, however, that number is closer to 9 out of 10 cases.

Turkey farms are particularly susceptible to outbreaks. The USDA reports that the majority, 70%, of all infected commercial poultry farms are turkey farms.

While Avian flu poses little risk to humans, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises avoiding unprotected contact with birds that appear sick or have died.

The TPWD suggests hunters wear disposable gloves this fall season and maintain disciplined hygiene. When possible, game birds should be dressed in the fields. The group also recommends cleaning and disinfecting any tools between birds.

Lastly, all game meat should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the TPWD.

As of November 28, the Texas Animal Health Commission was showing three confirmed cases of HPAI across the state on their website, including one in Dallas identified in a non-commercial, non-poultry flock on September 24.

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