With the nation’s largest outbreak of avian flu spreading from the Northwest to the Midwest, officials in North Carolina’s $18 billion poultry industry are taking action.
The state has formed a task force and even has sent teams to Minnesota to help with the big job of safely killing affected flocks, according to Jennifer Kendrick, the public information officer for the N.C. Department of Agriculture.
First, Kendrick emphasizes this: There have been no reports of infected birds here. The closest report so far is Western Kentucky. But poultry is big here, from huge turkey operations to backyard chicken houses, so the state is making plans and spreading information.
“We’re planning with the assumption that it’s coming, just because we have to be prepared,” Kendrick says. “We’re all keeping our fingers crossed, we’re still saying ‘if.’”
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Although the cost of eggs is holding steady at supermarkets in the Charlotte area, price increases are expected. The Food Marketing Institute reported that egg prices to retailers climbed 97 percent from mid- to late May and 19 percent in the first week in June, the highest month-over-month increase for eggs in the Consumer Price Index since a severe drought in July 1952 drove egg prices up 23 percent.
Since the avian flu was reported on a Minnesota farm in February, more than 45 million birds have been affected. As the nation’s largest supplier of eggs, Iowa has been particularly hard hit, with a loss of 27.2 million birds.
If you’re a consumer or a chicken farmer, even with a backyard flock, here are a few things to know:
▪ This strain of the flu has shown no danger to humans. Even if you had an egg or a chicken that was infected, cooking either one properly would remove the risk, Kendrick says. A version that sickened humans in China is a different strain.
▪ Anyone who has contact with chickens, from commercial operations to backyard flocks, should take precautions. This strain is believed to be spread by wild birds. Keep chickens in protected areas. If you work with chickens or visit farms, use disposable booties or change clothes when moving between farms.
▪ If you get new chickens, quarantine them from existing birds for two weeks to a month.
▪ Wild birds are carriers, but they show no symptoms. The droppings from migrating birds are a concern, such as stepping in droppings from a wild goose and then walking into an area with domestic birds. While birds on the Atlantic flight path haven’t shown infection, that might change when more birds migrate in the fall, Kendrick says.
▪ The state is working with organic farmers who raise chickens in pastures so they can keep their organic certification. The state is trying to help those farms find inexpensive ways to create shelters for pastured birds.
▪ If you have backyard chickens, pay attention to their behavior and get familiar with the symptoms. For instance, birds often get lethargic in warm weather, but being very lethargic may be cause for concern. An occasional death in a flock is normal, but the sudden death of several chickens may not be.
Contact a veterinarian if you’re not sure. The state also has a website, ncagr.gov/avianflu, with information.
“Our biggest thing is, we want to find it fast,” says Kendrick. “Keep a close eye on your chickens.”
Avian flu symptoms
▪ Lack of energy and appetite.
▪ Decreased egg production or soft or misshapen eggs.
▪ Swelling of the head, eyelids and comb.
▪ Purple discoloration of the wattles, combs and legs.
▪ Stumbling, falling down, diarrhea.
▪ Sudden death.
Protecting your chickens
▪ Isolate birds from visitors and other birds, including wild birds.
▪ Know the symptoms.
▪ Keep all areas clean to prevent the spread of virus.
▪ Keep a report of sick birds.
▪ Pay attention to your contact with other farms or facilities that house birds near your home.