Not Just Turkeys: Avian Flu Infections In Chickens Spooking Farms, Food Companies
In a state that processes more turkeys per year than anywhere else, avian flu has taken its toll. But it’s not just turkeys affected.
The deadly disease—officially known as H5N2—has killed about 7.7 million birds to date and been devastating enough that Gov. Mark Dayton declared a state of emergency. Nearly half that number has been egg-laying chickens.
About 2 million egg-laying chickens will be killed in Renville County after it was identified that the farm was infected. Another 1.1 million in Nicollet County were put down earlier in the outbreak. Clay and Stearns counties have also been affected.
Though only a few counties have been hit, that hasn’t stopped chicken processors and food companies from going on high alert and revamping their bio-security policies. The matter is especially pressing, given that the state has been hit the second hardest during the outbreak, only being surpassed—by a long shot—by Iowa.
The industry has racked up about $310 million in direct and indirect losses so far, according to a new analysis by the University of Minnesota Extension.
The severity of the outbreak has spooked many Minnesota poultry companies and groups, keeping them tight lipped and circling the wagons, with only limited responses from spokespeople and pre-approved statements.
One such case included Sparboe Farms, a Litchfield-based agriculture company that identifies itself as a “top 10 egg [company] in the United States,” which did not respond to repeated requests for information on the safety of their farms and bio-security measures. Nor could the Chicken and Egg Association of Minnesota be reached.
State law prevents governments from disclosing which farms have been infected with avian flu, so nearly all information needs to come from the farms and companies, which have little reason to open up.
A few, however, were willing to talk.
GNP Company, a St. Cloud-based chicken processor that sells under the Gold'n Plump and Just BARE brands, said they haven’t had any outbreaks yet and they’re working to keep it that way.
The company says it has no “corporate farms,” but instead partners with families. That means working with approximately 350 different sites in Minnesota and Wisconsin to ensure best practices are followed.
“We work with our family farm partners and field service people to provide guidance for on-farm bio-security, which includes best practices provided by the Minnesota Board of Animal Health and USDA [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service],” a spokeswoman for the company said.
As a precautionary measure, farms identified as having the disease are required by law to euthanize all birds, regardless of their infection status. Birds are tested for the disease before they reach the food supply system and avian flu is thought to pose a low risk to humans.
But even food companies, especially those that deal with chicken products, are keeping their ears to the ground.
“We monitor the situation daily and are working with our suppliers to understand all possible threats and scenarios,” Brian Coan, vice president of enterprise supply chain at Buffalo Wild Wings, said in an email.
The Golden Valley-based restaurant chain says it doesn’t expect problems procuring chicken anytime soon, given that last year more than 8.5 billion birds were processed for the food industry. Still, the company has created a contingency plan should there be a shortfall in supply in certain areas of the country.
“We have a strategy of using multiple suppliers in different regions of the country,” Coan said.
Though Buffalo Wild Wings hasn’t faced supply issues, the Star Tribune reports that some grocers in the Twin Cities are facing temporary egg shortages.