State officials have ended a ban on public bird shows and sales in North Carolina because they say it’s no longer needed to prevent the spread of a deadly avian flu virus.
But state and industry officials also say the threat of a flu outbreak will never go away, meaning some of the measures adopted in recent months to protect the state’s $5 billion poultry-growing industry will become common practice.
“Some of the ways we’ve done business in the past can’t be the way we do business going forward,” said State Veterinarian Doug Meckes. “All that guidance, all the caution, has been taken to heart, and I know the poultry industry has changed the way they do business.”
Six months ago, an outbreak of bird flu in North Carolina seemed likely. A particularly virulent form of the virus appeared in Iowa and Minnesota last winter, resulting in the deaths of 49 million chickens and turkeys. The price of eggs to retailers more than doubled in a few weeks last spring, and government and poultry industry officials across the country prepared for the outbreak to spread.
State officials feared that migrating birds would bring the virus to North Carolina in the fall and that humans would help spread it among both commercial and small backyard flocks. Last summer, the state stockpiled machines used to kill birds quickly in case members of a flock became infected. Among the other efforts to stop an outbreak was the ban on public bird shows, including the showing of live birds at the N.C. State Fair in October.
It was like nothing seen before and unprecedented losses.
Keith Williams, National Turkey Federation
The state also required the owners of small flocks to register their birds with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to help contain an outbreak and make notification easier. More than 7,500 small and backyard farmers are now included in the registry.
The registry requirement was dropped this month, along with the ban on shows and sales, because the deadly strain of the avian flu hasn’t been seen since June at a farm in the Midwest. Warm weather kills the virus, but the fact that it hasn’t re-emerged anywhere indicates it’s safe to lift the restrictions, said N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.
“While we are allowing public poultry swap meets and shows to resume, we will consider putting the ban back in place if the national situation changes,” Troxler said in a statement. “Our commercial poultry industry is integral to our state’s economy.”
Avian flu, like its counterpart in humans, never goes away; it mutates from year to year, with new strains emerging, some of them more harmful than others. On Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that a new “highly pathogenic” strain of avian flu had been found in a commercial turkey flock in Indiana and that the entire flock was being euthanized to keep it from spreading.
Government and industry officials in North Carolina are still preparing for an outbreak of deadly avian flu. Last month, state agriculture and emergency management officials and representatives from industry and universities held an exercise to walk through the first 72 hours of a potential outbreak, Meckes said.
Meanwhile, the industry has tightened up its bio-security measures to reduce the risk that wild birds or humans will infect a barn full of chickens or turkeys, said Jennifer Kendrick, spokeswoman for the agriculture department. Kendrick said Garner-based Butterball in particular has worked to standardize bio-security practices at farms where its turkeys are raised.
Butterball referred questions about steps to prevent the flu to the National Turkey Federation, one of the groups that has worked with government officials to prevent the flu from spreading. Spokesman Keith Williams said the industry had good bio-security measures in place before, but last year’s strain of the virus was unusually virulent.
“It was like nothing seen before and unprecedented losses,” Williams said.
Meckes, the state veterinarian, said humans are carriers of pathogens that infect farm animals. He said if you want to find the virus that causes swine flu, test the floor in front of the coffee machine at a truck stop in the Midwest, where the drivers that go from farm to farm stop to fuel up.
Last year’s avian flu outbreak was aided by similar movement on the boots of farmers visiting their neighbors, Meckes said. One benefit of the outbreak in the Midwest, and the precautions taken in North Carolina, is that everyone seems to better understand how to prevent the spread of the virus.
“We all are lulled into complacency in the absence of a threat,” he said. “We would want to believe a lot of these practices were going on before this virus, but obviously that wasn’t the case.”
Taking extra care
New preventive measures are becoming standard on turkey farms, said National Turkey Federation spokesman Keith Williams. They include:
▪ Storing feed in sealed containers to prevent wild birds from making contact with it;
▪ Allowing delivery trucks to come no farther onto a farm than the front gate, to prevent the spread of virus by the truck or the driver; and
▪ Making workers change into clothes and boots that never leave the barn before they go to work.
“These are things that you wouldn’t normally do and wouldn’t be called for,” Williams said. But after the outbreak, “you’re saying, ‘What more can we do?’”