How much did this year’s avian influenza, what one government official called “the largest animal-health emergency in this country’s history,” affect chickens and turkeys in the United States?
According to National Geographic’s Maryn McKenna, 49.5 million chickens and turkeys were destroyed because of the avian flu. According to economist Thomas Elam of consulting group FarmEcon, the cost of these birds ($1.57 billion) and to businesses that support farms, to egg and poultry wholesalers, and to food service firms, pushed the loss to $3.3 billion.
That’s a lot.
If that wasn’t enough, the US Department of Agriculture committed $500 million to efforts to block the disease, and paid $190 million to farmers whose birds were destroyed during this outbreak.
How does that affect us at the grocery store? According to Egg Innovations, which markets itself as producing “Ethical Eggs for the Humane Race,” egg prices have increased 17 percent per carton due to supply and demand.
Egg Innovations believes it’s time to examine the big farming practices of highly efficient, huge connected barns of up to 6 million caged birds pumping eggs onto conveyor belts to supply the “breaker” industry (liquid eggs used in everything from pancake mix to ice cream).
According to Egg Innovations, the downside of this approach is that it violates one of the first rules of biosecurity by congregating large populations of those who are potentially susceptible in tight quarters. Once introduced, the avian influenza virus spreads rapidly and is more than 90 percent fatal within eight days.
The company believes that small flocks should be in geographically-diversified locations with room to roam and do what chickens naturally do: perch, flap, dust bathe, nest, forage and socialize. These environments also help hens, known as Free Range and Pasture Raised hens, build natural immunities to avian influenza.
While this type of production is hard to scale and more expensive to run because the birds actually go outside, it protects the hens. To help support these efforts, John Brunnquell, president of Egg Innovations, believes that consumers can help by supporting the free range egg industry.
“Our solution for farmers and consumers is simple: Turn back to small farming practices where flocks are safe and protected,” added Brunnquell. “I always tell people to look for Free Range and Pasture Raised eggs on the labels at your grocer and vote with your wallet for the humane treatment of chickens.”
In the case of this year’s bird flu, the flu was originally brought to the US by wild birds migrating down from Canada, most of the spread within the US was due to people and vehicles inadvertently carrying the virus from farm to farm, according to McKenna.
While new procedures are being considered to help prevent cross-farm contamination, they’re very costly. Worst of all, with a recent report that bird flu has been found in wild birds again, this could be just the beginning of what was already one of the largest animal health emergencies in U.S. history.