Late last week, things in Minnesota got a little bit more serious when Governor Mark Dayton declared a state of emergency. If you aren’t yet aware, Minnesota turkey farmers have been hit by an outbreak of avian flu. So far, the flu has struck 2.5 million turkeys in the state and recently there was an outbreak at a chicken farm.
Unfortunately, the impact on any given farm is absolutely devastating. As the number of cases continue to climb and the flu spreads, I thought it would be a good idea to cover some of the basic questions that keep popping up.
What happens when a farm finds out its turkeys have the flu?
As explained in the SCTimes, when the flu hits a turkey farm it happens fast and usually without any warning. Besides suspecting that it’s being spread by water birds, such as ducks and geese, farmers and scientists are not exactly sure how it’s being spread. Nonetheless, within hours half of a flock can be dead.
Unfortunately, once it has been confirmed that a farm has an outbreak of the flu, the rest of the healthy animals also have to be euthanized. State officials hope that this will contain the breakout and prevent further farms from getting infected. The bodies of the turkeys or chickens are then composted within the barn by heating it up to temperatures high enough to destroy the virus. Farm equipment is also sterilized to help stop the spread of the virus.
Minnesota isn’t the only state that’s had confirmed outbreaks, though the state has perhaps been hit the worst. Arkansas, Wisconsin, Kansas, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota have also seen the flu in turkey populations.
Is this just a problem at large “factory” farms?
No, the Avian flu can strike any type of of turkey farm, regardless of the size of the farm and regardless of how the turkeys are kept. There have been many suggestions (and some pretty blatant statements) that the flu has spread so quickly because large farms pack turkeys into confined spaces, but turkey housing has little to do with how the birds are contracting the illness.
While it is true that the flu can spread throughout an enclosed space, turkeys are not kept in cages and they are given plenty of room within the barn. In fact, turkey that are allowed to roam around outside or in people’s backyards are also at risk for contracting the flu. With the way the flu has spread, it appears that it is mostly being spread from waterfowl, not from one farm to the next.
What’s the cost?
Let’s put this situation into a little perspective. Minnesota is currently the largest turkey producing state in the country. Each year, Minnesota farmers raise 46 million turkeys! Chickens are also a big deal in Minnesota. Farmers raise around 47 million chickens for meat. Chicken farmers also raise 11.4 million chickens for eggs each year and produce a mere 3 billion eggs! As I mentioned, 2.5 million turkeys have been infected so far, with 45 commercial farms in Minnesota testing positive for the flu.
Obviously, there is a financial cost. Turkey farmers aren’t eligible for any type of subsidized crop insurance. That means that when birds come down with the flu and die, the farmers are not reimbursed for their losses. However, the USDA does pay for any healthy birds that have to be put down. The payments though are unlikely to cover all of the costs, including disinfecting the premises for future turkeys, and the financial impact can be devastating. Barns also have to sit empty for at least 21 days after they’ve been disinfected, so many farmers may be out for a while. In all, the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association estimates that farmers have taken a $20million hit.
But let’s set the money aside for a second and recognize the emotion toll such a loss takes on the farmers raising these birds. For many of the farmers, they feel helpless during this crisis. There’s really nothing they can do once the turkeys contract the flu, and not much they can do to prevent it either. Aside from the having a huge blow to their businesses, many of the farmers are feeling the loss of the birds as well.
Do I need to be worried about eating turkey or getting the flu myself?
Turkeys that have been infected with the flu are not used for food. Further, there have been no cases of the Avian flu spreading to humans. People in the state of Minnesota that have been working with the infected flocks have been monitored and tested, though (fortunately) none of them have contracted the flu. The USDA and the CCD are keeping an eye out for any humans getting sick and vaccines have been prepared in the event that they’re needed in the future.
Where can I learn more?
The following websites, and all of the websites listed as citations within the article, are definitely good sources of information about the avian flu. Here, I have included a couple farmer blogs too, because the hard reality of how this outbreak is going to hurt them is, unfortunately, the real story here.
For up-to-date information from the USDA.