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The Pennsylvania poultry industry is dealing with a bird flu outbreak, but experts say it's not a concern for public health

A flock of young turkeys stand in a barn at the Moline family turkey farm after the Mason, Iowa farm was restocked on Aug. 10, 2015.
Charlie Neibergall
In this 2015 file photo, a flock of young turkeys stand in a barn at the Moline family turkey farm after the Mason, Iowa farm was restocked. On April 16, 2022, the first known cases of bird flu among commercial poultry in Pennsylvania since 1984 were identified.

Twenty nine states, including Pennsylvania, are seeing an outbreak of the highly pathogenic avian influenza – or bird flu – among poultry birds.

Penn State Extension poultry team leader Dr. John Boney is a member of Pennsylvania’'s avian flu task force.
Provided by John Boney
Penn State Extension poultry team leader Dr. John Boney is a member of Pennsylvania’'s avian flu task force.

Penn State Extension poultry team leader Dr. John Boney says the disease poses low risk to human health, and there are measures to ensure safety if you have backyard chickens. Boney is a member of Pennsylvania’'s avian flu task force and talked with WPSU’s Min Xian.


Min Xian: The USDA confirmed on April 16 the presence of H5N1 bird flu in Lancaster County. How worrisome is the ongoing outbreak across the U.S.?

John Boney: This is a very alarming finding, one that we have been preparing for, but certainly one that is devastating to the poultry industry across the United States. And when we look specifically at Lancaster County, that is the most poultry dense county in Pennsylvania. So finding a positive case or a positive flock in Pennsylvania, it certainly causes alarm.

Min Xian: And so to mitigate, farmers across the country have culled millions of birds already, including about 1.4 million of them on the Lancaster County farm. How effective is that, and what other kind of mitigation measures are taking place?

John Boney: When a flock is confirmed positive by the NVSL laboratory in Iowa, the USDA takes control of the situation. The flock will be depopulated because we do not want the virus to continue to shed and spread. This is a virus that can spread many miles through the air. So it's really important that that flock be depopulated immediately to protect all the other poultry in that area.

Quarantine orders are put in place by the state, especially in what we call the control zone. This is a 10 kilometer zone. And when that quarantine is put in place, all poultry flocks within that zone undergo mandatory surveillance testing. And the idea there is we want to continually monitor these flocks so that we do not potentially spread or contribute to a spread of the outbreak outside of that control area.

Min Xian: Many people have backyard chickens and some might sell or give away extra eggs that they have. Should they be worried and what can they do to stay cautious?

John Boney: Sure. So the state has not issued any kind of movement restriction of poultry, especially the smaller poultry flocks, there have been no restrictions put in place currently. Now there are restrictions inside that quarantine zone that I previously mentioned, because all poultry flocks in that zone are being put under surveillance.

So some steps that small backyard flock producers can put into place are just to practice biosecurity, that is something that's the easiest thing that they can do. They are in control of what happens on their premise. So they can limit visitors to only those essential to business operations. They can limit or prevent the sharing of equipment. We're also encouraging folks that if there are feed spills on their farm, on their premise to clean it up quickly. And because these feed spills encourage wild birds on to their premise. And these wild birds are likely what are carrying the virus and helping spread the virus throughout the country.

So the symptoms that are common to highly pathogenic avian influenza can vary. In some species, we will see a sudden onset of morbidity followed by higher numbers of mortality than are normal. Other symptoms that you can see, if it takes a little bit longer to manifest in the bird, would be swollen head and wattles and then you'll see some neurologic symptoms where they’re twisting their head in bizarre manners. Those are the major symptoms that you will see.

To date in Pennsylvania, we've not had any confirmed cases in backyard flocks. However, if you do have poultry that are showing symptoms, it's important that you reach out to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. You can call their on staff veterinarian who is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, they will work with you on the case and the symptoms and determine if they need to send someone out to do a farm evaluation.

Min Xian: The Centers for Disease Control and also the USDA have been advising consumers that bird flu poses low risk to human health. And is that the right message to get across?

John Boney: That's correct. So the CDC is monitoring this. There have been zero confirmed cases of any zoonotic spread or transmission of avian influenza from birds to humans in our current outbreak in the United States. As far as the food safety aspect of this, if you cook your food to the proper, and suggested temperature – poultry products, we're looking at 165 degrees Fahrenheit – there are no risks to human health. Now, the other thing that's really important to monitor is, in an instance where a flock is confirmed positive, there is no movement of animals off of that complex. So I want the consumers to know that they're not going to be consuming poultry products or poultry meat that came from an infected flock.

Min Xian: What impacts are farmers and consumers going to see in terms of supply. Are poultry and egg prices expected to go up because of this?

John Boney: Right now our efforts are in stopping the spread of the virus. I would just be speculating if I provided an answer.

Certainly, if we look across the globe and across the country, if the situation continues to worsen, it could put stress on the supply of poultry and poultry products. Currently, I don't feel that we will see shortages. We're hoping that that doesn't happen. The other thing that's important is we will likely see some changes in the cost of materials at the supermarket, and poultry products are no different. I don't think that that is directly related to avian influenza currently. I think a lot of that has more to do with the situation between Russia and Ukraine, and how that has affected the global grain markets and the cost of grain so feed costs have certainly increased and that will contribute to increased prices at the supermarket.

Min Xian: John Boney, thank you so much for talking with us.

John Boney: Thank you.

Min Xian reported at WPSU from 2016-2022.
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