WASHINGTON — Brad Moline, a turkey producer from Manson, Iowa, has first-hand experience with avian influenza.
“I am currently living the avian influenza nightmare,” Mr. Moline said in his testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry on July 7. Mr. Moline, owner and manager of Moline Farms L.L.C., appeared at the hearing on behalf of the National Turkey Federation.
Since December 2014, more than 48 million birds have been affected by the outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The last detection reported, according to the U.S.D.A., was June 17. Commercial poultry operations in 14 states were devastated by the virus.
Thomas Elam, president of FarmEcon L.L.C. in Carmel, Ind., testified that estimated direct losses from culled turkey and layer flocks is about $1.57 billion — $530 million for turkeys and $1.04 billion for layers.
“By design, these estimated impacts exclude substantial price increases that have occurred since the outbreak hit the Upper Midwest,” Dr. Elam noted in his testimony. “That estimated loss does not include cleanup, bird restocking, higher costs to consumers from post‐outbreak price increases, or any further production losses past today.”
Dr. Elam’s estimate of economy‐wide losses for just-destroyed production to date “is conservatively estimated at nearly $3.3 billion.” This larger number is based on earlier University of Minnesota research and includes estimated losses past the producer and wholesale level and into retail food stores and the food service sector, he noted.
“As bad as it is for turkey and egg consumers facing higher prices and possible product shortages, for those affected producers the losses are catastrophic,” Dr. Elam testified.
Mr. Moline provided grim details of his losses and the challenges he is facing as he works to rebuild his turkey flock. Moline raises approximately 155,000 turkeys annually, and Moline Farms is one of more than 40 farmers operations that supply turkeys to West Liberty Foods in West Liberty, Iowa.
“We have already depopulated more than 56,000 turkeys, which totally cleaned out our 12 growing barns,” Mr. Moline said. “If we are lucky, we will be able to salvage this year with one flock, which we hope to repopulate sometime around Aug. 1.
“Regardless, two-thirds of our annual income has been wiped out by HPAI. Without APHIS indemnification of the loss of birds, many farmers may have been forced to hang it up. We could not live without these indemnity payments provided by U.S.D.A. during this time.”
Wild migratory birds carry the virus, but HPAI was introduced to commercial poultry operations by several ways. Humans transmitted the virus farm-to-farm via boots or farm equipment. The environment also carried the virus by water, soil, animal feces and through the air, said John Clifford, deputy administrator, veterinary services, Animal Plant Health and Inspection Service (APHIS).
“After conducting an analysis of over 80 commercial poultry farms, APHIS cannot associate transmission of the disease with any single one of those factors, but it seems clear that lateral spread occurred when biosecurity measures that are sufficient in ordinary times were not sufficient in the face of such a large amount of virus in the environment,” he explained.
Dr. Elam noted in his testimony “… the very real possibility of another major HPAI outbreak later this year” as wild birds migrate again. Dr. Clifford said APHIS is ready to tackle a second outbreak head-on.
“To that end, we recently concluded a planning workshop with our partners focusing on the worst-case scenarios and the responses needed,” he said. “We’re identifying the resources we would need under various scenarios and how we can better partner with states and industry to manage this disease.”
The agency’s partners have been encouraged to review existing avian influenza response plans so that they know what actions to take and what APHIS expects. Additionally, APHIS is urging states and the poultry industry to develop site- and county-level specific depopulation plans for disposing or composting birds.
“Our experience in the Midwest showed that the biggest roadblock to efficient depopulation (which is key to reducing the spread of the virus) is the lack of ready sites to receive and process dead birds,” Dr. Clifford said.
But the best tool for poultry producers is a vaccine against HPAI — and farmers need assurance they will be able to use it when it becomes available.“There are concerns that some countries will cite our use of vaccines in order to restrict our poultry exports,” Mr. Moline explained. “If the turkey industry were to vaccinate, we would do so in a fashion that allows us clearly to differentiate between vaccinated and infected birds, so that we can ensure that no infected bird ever leaves the farm and that no meat from vaccinated birds ever leaves our shores.”