Throughout 2022, from commercial to backyard flocks, poultry producers have been dealing with outbreaks of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) across the country. The 2022 HPAI outbreak in the United States started on Feb. 8, with a flock of commercial turkeys in Indiana. By now, 46 states have detected HPAI, with approximately 50 million birds affected — and nearly 8 million are meat-producing turkeys. Most of the turkeys affected were in Minnesota, which is among the top turkey production states along with North Carolina, Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri, Virginia, Iowa and California. The disease has also been affecting poultry production in other countries.
Influenza viruses from the family “Orthomyxoviridae” are classified into A, B, C and D. Multiple species can be affected, including humans, swine and birds. In birds, avian influenza — commonly referred to as “avian flu” and “bird flu” — is caused by influenza A virus, which is further classified into highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) and low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI). Subtypes of avian flu are divided based on surface glycoproteins, named hemagglutinin (H 1-16) and neuraminidase (N 1-9). The subtype linked to the current outbreak is H5N1.
This disease has zoonotic potential, meaning it can be spread to and infect humans, but, fortunately, human infection rates are negligible. Nevertheless, authorities are constantly monitoring the risk to public health. It is important to point out that HPAI or LPAI are not the same seasonal flu that affects humans almost every winter. Also, HPAI does not represent a risk to food safety.
The spread of HPAI has been linked to migratory waterfowl since they are generally asymptomatic carriers, meaning they do not show clinical signs of the disease while infected and spreading the virus. Transmission of HPAI can occur by contaminated fomites, including humans and equipment, in addition to direct contact with infected birds and excretions. Although not considered the primary mode of transmission, contaminated dust and aerosols can also represent an important source of infection, depending on weather conditions.
USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Veterinary Services have a response plan to mitigate the spread and the consequences of HPAI outbreaks, based on what was learned in the previous HPAI outbreak in 2014-2015. In the current outbreak, the prompt implementation of control measures, strengthening of biosecurity plans in poultry farms, as well as quick and effective communication among the poultry sector have potentially reduced what could be an even worse outbreak. Since it is a highly contagious disease, the main strategy to control and eradicate HPAI is stamping out and depopulation of infected birds, recommended by the World Organization for Animal Health. With this method, affected poultry are properly depopulated using approved methods once the disease is confirmed.
The combination of HPAI outbreaks and increased feed, fuel and fertilizers prices, led to a decrease in commercial turkey production and increased price. However, these factors will not impact the availability of whole turkeys for Thanksgiving since producers prioritized guaranteeing the supply of turkeys to meet the demand of this time of the year. Although the price is increased for this year — the forecast price of frozen whole hen turkey for the last quarter of 2022 is $1.81 per pound compared to $1.33 per pound in the same period of 2021 — groceries will probably have discounts to attract consumers. According to the USDA National Retail Report, in the week ending on Nov. 16, the average advertised price of fresh whole turkey hens was $1.56 per pound and frozen $0.97 per pound in grocery stores. A typical Thanksgiving turkey is usually a female (called turkey hen), weighing on average 15 lb. It takes around 14 weeks to achieve that weight. Once a turkey flock is depopulated due to HPAI, it takes months to start a new production cycle after proper carcass disposal, virus elimination, testing of the environment and approval from USDA and state official to restock (5).
The intensity and duration of the current outbreak of HPAI worldwide compared to previous HPAI outbreaks are a huge concern for the poultry industry and improvements in strategies to control HPAI are a priority. HPAI outbreaks are devastating not only for birds but for producers and responders; it is not only a financial impact but also a psychological impact on everyone involved. Yet, even with all these challenges and stresses, the effort and resilience of turkey farmers and the turkey industry will guarantee the availability of turkeys for Thanksgiving — one more reason to be thankful.
Thainá Landim de Barros (DVM, Ph.D.) is an assistant professor and poultry health extension specialist at the Ohio State University, in the Department of Animal Sciences/Center for Food Animal Health.