OMAHA, Neb. – The ongoing bird flu outbreak has cost the government roughly $661 million and added to consumers' pain at the grocery store after more than 58 million birds were slaughtered to limit the spread of the virus.
In addition to the cost of the government response that the USDA tallied up and rising prices for eggs, chicken and turkey, farmers who raise those animals have easily lost more than $1 billion, said an agricultural economist, though no one has calculated the total cost to the industry yet.
The bad news is that with the outbreak entering its second year and the spring migratory season looming, there is no end in sight. And there is little farmers can do beyond the steps they have already taken to try to keep the virus out.
The outbreak is already more widespread than the last major bird flu outbreak in 2015, but it hasn't proven as costly yet partly because the government and industry applied lessons learned eight years ago.
“The past year has been devastating for the turkey industry as we experience, unequivocally, the worst HPAI (highly pathogenic avian influenza) outbreak in the industry’s history,” National Turkey Federation spokeswoman Shelby Newman said.
In the current outbreak, 58.4 million birds have been slaughtered on more than 300 commercial farms in 47 states. That is because any time the virus is detected, the entire flock on that farm — which can number in the millions — must be killed to limit the spread of the disease. Only Hawaii, Louisiana and West Virginia have yet to report a case of bird flu. Iowa — the nation's biggest egg producer — leads the nation with nearly 16 million birds slaughtered.
In 2015, about 50 million chickens and turkeys were slaughtered on more than 200 farms in 15 states.
That previous outbreak remains the most expensive animal health disaster in U.S. history. The federal government spent nearly $1 billion to deal with infected birds, clean up barns and compensate farmers. It cost the industry roughly $3 billion as farmers incurred additional costs and lost money when they didn’t have any birds on their farms.
This bills continue to pile up this year as cases spread, and that includes the cost to consumers.
Egg prices shot up to $4.82 a dozen in January from $1.93 a year earlier, according to the latest government figures. That spike prompted calls for a price-gouging investigation although the industry maintains that the combination of bird flu and significantly higher feed, fuel and labor costs is what’s driving prices so high.
The price for a pound of chicken breast was $4.32 in January. That’s down slightly from last fall when the price peaked at $4.75, but it is up significantly from the year before when chicken breasts were selling for $3.73 per pound.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t track retail turkey prices the same way as part of its inflation data, but the Agriculture Department says the wholesale price of turkey went from $1.29 per pound last January just before the bird flu outbreak began to $1.72 per pound last month.
The number of birds slaughtered peaked last spring at almost 21 million in March, leaving farmers leery of what they must face in the months ahead. University of Georgia virus researcher David Stallknecht said there is some hope that this spring might not be quite as bad because turkeys and chickens may have developed some immunity to the virus.
The key problem with bird flu is that the highly contagious virus is spread easily by wild birds through their droppings and nasal discharges. Despite the best efforts of farmers, it is hard to keep the virus out.
Farmers have gone to great lengths by requiring workers to shower and change clothes before entering barns, sanitizing trucks that enter a farm and investing in separate sets of tools for every barn. Some farms have even upgraded barn ventilation and installed laser systems to discourage wild birds from congregating.
“We recommend all producers redouble their efforts to protect their birds through good biosecurity practices,” said Lyndsay Cole, a spokeswoman for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service that's leading the government's response.
Farmers began following those steps after the 2015 outbreak, and this outbreak has only reinforced the need to tighten biosecurity.
“America’s egg farmers continue to double-down on biosecurity protocols to protect our flocks and maintain a stable egg supply. We are grateful that there has been little to no farm-to-farm spread in this current outbreak,” said Oscar Garrison, senior vice president of food safety and regulatory affairs at the United Egg Producers trade group.
Poultry and egg producers, partnering with the government, are parsing this outbreak for new lessons in keeping birds healthy.
“That’s really the key – early detection. It’s kind of like a forest fire - the earlier you detect it, the easier it is to contain and eradicate,” National Chicken Council spokesman Tom Super said.
Officials say bird flu doesn’t represent a significant threat to human health. Human cases are extremely rare and none of the infected birds are allowed into the nation’s food supply. And properly cooking poultry to 165 degrees Fahrenheit will kill any viruses.
There has only been one human case of bird flu confirmed during this outbreak and that was a man who had been helping slaughter and remove infected birds from a Colorado farm. He recovered from the illness after a few days.