U.S. poultry exports are starting to suffer following the discovery of avian flu infections in backyard flocks in Washington and Oregon.
Since infected birds were first found in mid-December, 29 countries as well as the European Union have restricted poultry imports, according to the USDA.
Most of the restrictions apply to Oregon and Washington, or even just to the small areas within those states where the virus was found. But in a damaging blow to export producers, Politico reported that three countries (Sri Lanka, South Korea and Thailand) have restricted poultry trade for the entire U.S.
Trade restrictions like these are often applied because of how contagious this type of avian flu can be for other birds — not because of risk of human infection.
But the USDA issued a statement calling out these countries for violating the guidelines from the World Animal Health Organization (OIE), which requires such trade restrictions to be limited to a defined region.
Toby Moore, a spokesman for the U.S. Poultry and Egg Exporters Council, said that the restrictions have definitely interrupted trade, but as of yet, he doesn’t know how much.
For context, the U.S. shipped nearly $100 million of poultry to South Korea in the first eleven months of 2014. Numbers for December are not yet available.
This isn’t the first time the robust food trade between the Northwest and East Asia has been interrupted by import bans. In 2013, South Korea and Japan cancelled orders of soft white wheat grown in Oregon, Washington and Idaho after a strain of genetically engineered wheat not approved for planting was found growing in Oregon.
South Korea, Thailand and Sri Lanka’s nationwide bans will be have the greatest impact beyond the Pacific Northwest, which doesn’t produce a lot of poultry for export anyway.
The two largest poultry producers in Washington are Foster Farms and Draper Valley, neither of which have export facilities in the state.
Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation, said that the biggest challenge for Washington poultry farmers will simply be keeping the disease out of commercial facilities. As of yet, there have been no avian flu infections at commercial facilities — just at smaller backyard farms. But many countries (including the U.S.) do not distinguish between the two in their exports policies.
On Jan. 2, avian bird flu was found again among a backyard flock of approximately 150 domestic waterfowl near Benton City, Wash. The flock had access to a pond, which is also used by migratory birds. A few days later infected birds were found at a second location in the area. The Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) worked with owners to control the spread of the virus by culling flocks.
By Wednesday, Jan. 7, WSDA established a quarantine zone of about 20 miles covering parts of Benton and Franklin counties, which restricted movement of poultry and poultry products. Poultry owners have also been advised of biosafety measures.
Michael Fineman, a Foster Farms spokesman, said that the company does not have a facility impacted by the quarantine, but it is working with state and national agencies to increase biosafety measures at its facilities.
“We have not diagnosed the virus anywhere else in our domestic poultry population, but the presence of the virus in migratory waterfowl is a risk to backyard poultry. One step owners should take is preventing contact between their birds and wild birds,” said state veterinarian Dr. Joe Baker.
The two identified viruses, H5N2 and H5N8, have been found in other parts of the world, including on commercial farms in British Columbia and most recently in Taiwan. The H5N8 strain was a huge problem in Asia last year, where producers culled nearly 600,000 poultry in South Korea and 120,000 in Japan, according to the OIE. It was also found in Germany, the U.K. and the Netherlands late last year.
Moore boasted that the U.S. probably has “the best surveillance system for avian influenza in the world.”
The last highly pathogenic bird flu to infect U.S. birds occurred in Texas in 2004, he said. Previous to that, there was an outbreak in Pennsylvania in 1983-84. Some milder versions of influenza do occur from time to time, he said, but they aren’t common.
Avian flu can affect many species of birds but is particularly concerning when it affects commercial poultry like chicken and turkeys.
It has spread to humans in some cases when people come in contact with live birds, and is likely the result of avian influenza recombining with human influenza, according to the OIE. So far, person-to-person transmission has not been reported.
These particular strains of avian flu have never been found in a human, and the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention does not consider these strains to be risky for people.
Consumers shouldn’t worry about purchasing poultry meat or egg products — avian flu is not a food safety issue. The USDA says that even if poultry were infected with avian flu, it would still be safe to eat as long as it is properly cooked.