Avian flu: Poultry insiders fear the threat may be far from over

Turkey

Last year, the outbreak of the H5N2 avian flu wreaked havoc on poultry farmers in 16 states, leading to the loss of 48 million birds, not to mention an egg shortage that sent prices skyrocketing. Even though the immediate threat of a recurrence seems remote, poultry experts are concerned that the U.S. remains vulnerable to outbreaks--and that next time, the damage could be much worse.

The states that were affected by last year’s outbreak actually represent just a fraction of the country’s poultry industry, according to experts quoted in a New York Times Sunday magazine story. If avian flu were to make its way to Georgia and the Delmarva Peninsula--say via ducks migrating that way across the country--it could threaten 9 billion birds and 90 billion eggs, according to the Times. And it could lead to the loss of 1.3 million jobs and $40 billion in earnings.

Compare that to the losses suffered in the recent outbreak, and the fear seems warranted. Last year’s spread of H5N2 cost the U.S. 2.6 billion in lost sales and 15,693 jobs, according to a July study quoted in the Times.

What’s worse, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is underpowered to deal with a massive outbreak. “Our current funding level for animal-health activities is below levels that were available to us 10 years ago,” said Kevin Shea, APHIS’s administrator, during a recent House Committee on Agriculture session, according to the Times. “Aphis has seen a reduction of more than 200 animal-health professionals in that time,” he said. “The need to rebuild our capacity is critical.”

Last fall, the USDA rolled out a multifaceted plan to deal with future outbreaks of avian flu. It included strengthening biosecurity practices on farms and deploying early-warning systems to better detect viruses when they emerge. The agency also assigned Ceva Animal Health and Merck-owned Harrisvaccines to build an emergency stockpile of avian flu vaccine.

But it’s not just avian flu that represents a serious threat. As the Times story points out, an outbreak of Newcastle disease in 2002 led to the slaughter of 3 million birds. More recently, the emergence of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDv) killed 7 million piglets and caused pork prices to rise by 10%. Foot-and-mouth disease--a threat to cows, pigs and sheep--hasn’t been seen in the U.S. since 1929, but if it were to return, it could cost the U.S. as much as $100 billion, the USDA estimates.

- here’s the Times story (sub. req.)