The unprecedented U.S. bird flu outbreak — which is centered in Minnesota — is likely to stick around for three to five years and possibly impact poultry across the nation, a top U.S. veterinary official said Thursday.
“This is something very unusual, where we have seen bird flu adapt so well,” John Clifford, chief veterinary officer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told a Minnesota House agriculture committee.
“It’s something in North America that we may have to live with for a few years. It will very likely reoccur later this fall, and not just in Minnesota, but in all four flyways,” he said, referring to the major migratory waterfowl routes traversing North America. “It can impact poultry across the United States.”
The lethal H5N2 bird flu is believed to originate in waterfowl that don’t get sick from the virus, but spread it through their feces. Once it’s in a waterfowl population, the virus hangs around for a few years.
Clifford, based out of Washington, D.C., has been in Minnesota to assess the bird flu situation since Tuesday. He’s met with farmers and turkey company executives, including from Jennie-O, a division of Hormel Foods and one of the nation’s largest turkey processors. The USDA has sent dozens of employees to Minnesota to help state animal-health regulators respond to the bird flu.
Domestic turkeys are particularly susceptible to the H5N2 virus, and Minnesota is the nation’s leading turkey producer, churning out about 46 million birds a year. Since the virus surfaced in Pope County in early March, 22 Minnesota turkey farms have been struck with flu, leading to the death of more than 1.4 million birds.
About one-third of those deaths come directly from the flu, while the rest come from the policy of killing all birds on a farm — even those not infected — out of precaution. For those birds lost through culling, the USDA pays an indemnity to farmers.
So far, the USDA has spent $15 million in emergency funding on bird flu in Minnesota, most of it through indemnity payments to turkey growers, Clifford said.
USDA officials couldn’t say how many of the 22 farms hit in Minnesota have gotten USDA payouts so far. But the payments will surely rise, and Clifford said in an interview with the Star Tribune that he expects more USDA funding to come through.
On average, it takes about $2 million to euthanize a flock, Clifford said, including costs such as thoroughly disinfecting barns after turkey “compost” is removed. The birds are composted for 28 days, which kills the virus, animal health officials say. The compost that’s left is usually spread on farm fields.
The payouts for dead birds depend on turkey market prices and the age of the birds; the older and closer to being slaughtered, the higher the payment. The virus is particularly striking older, rather than younger, turkeys. The payout for a mature bird near slaughter might be around $25, Clifford said.
Farmers bear the cost of birds killed directly by the flu, as insurance for avian disease is rare. Direct losses for Minnesota farmers were over $15 million before the USDA announced Friday that the bird flu had surfaced at eight more farms.
Also, farmers hit by the bird flu face a huge business interruption, as their barns can be out of commission for months.