A new strain of avian influenza, that has been sweeping the globe, has landed in the Canadian province of British Columbia impacting at least two poultry farms after late last month bird flu forced an American poultry farmer to cull some 3 million chickens.
The outbreaks risk putting further strain on food availability at a time when inflation and supply chain disruptions — a remnant of COVID-19 measures — are driving up the cost of food across the continent.
A chicken farmer, Peggy Ife, from a small community in rural southeastern B.C., told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) on April 25 that of her flock of 70 chickens all but a dozen of them have died in just four days.
“They were literally dropping dead,” she told the CBC, adding that she expects to lose the remainder of her flock over the next two days.
Ife became concerned after she observed her birds behaving lethargic and appeared to be uninterested in food. Following some research she concluded that it was likely her birds had contracted avian flu.
Ife’s loss follows another outbreak of avian flu on a poultry farm in B.C.’s North Okanagan which was placed under quarantine by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
On April 12, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada said that the Canadian food industry was making adjustments to maintain supplies of poultry and eggs “in the face of a large outbreak of avian flu in Canada and around the world,” CTV News reported.
A highly pathogenic strain of bird flu, H5N1, has been driving outbreaks in several regions of Canada including in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Alberta since late 2021. British Columbia can now be added to this list indicating the flu has now spanned the entire nation from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean.
As of the middle of April, approximately 260,000 birds have had to be destroyed in Canada with around 166,000 of those in Alberta and some 84,000 in Ontario.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has said that there are several factors driving up the cost of food and that it’s difficult right now to find a direct link between higher costs for eggs and poultry and the virus but the agency is monitoring the situation.
Donald Boucher, director general of sector development with Agri-Food Canada told CTV News, “Poultry and egg production in Canada are supply managed and there are mechanisms in place that modelling boards can deploy to give them the flexibility to adjust to the kind of disruption that we are talking right now.”
Millions of birds dead in the US driving up costs
In the U.S., upwards of 23 million birds have had to be culled due to the H5N1 strain of bird flu. This is the first time the U.S. has recorded incidents of bird flu since 2015 when more than 50 million birds died.
As of April 22, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is reporting that some 31.6 million poultry birds in 29 states have been affected by outbreaks and a suspected 762 wild birds, including bald eagles, in 33 states have contracted the virus.
In a statement, Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall said, “The HPAI outbreak is an urgent reminder to all poultry farmers to ensure their biosecurity measures are in place,” adding that “Every effort must be made to protect the health of the animals in our care in order to keep America’s food supply strong.”
The outbreaks have caused the price of eggs to soar in recent weeks. According to the USDA, the price of a dozen eggs last November was around $1. Now the price is hovering around $2.95 and is continuing to rise.
Grady Ferguson, senior research analyst for Gro Intelligence, an agriculture data platform, told the Washington Post that the outbreaks have affected around 1.3 percent of all U.S. chickens.
Ferguson believes that the current outbreak has the potential to be even worse than the 2015 outbreak.
“We are above and beyond the rate of spread we saw in 2015,” Ferguson said. “Last time, 81 percent of the cases were in the fourth and fifth month, as things exploded. What chicken egg prices did last time affected the market for years. We are two months into the outbreak now, and the safety protocols haven’t worked. I don’t want to be a Chicken Little, but I think it’s going to be worse than last time.”
Ferguson said that not only can consumers expect to pay more for eggs but they can also expect to pay more for baked goods. “[We] will see higher prices for all baked goods and a wide variety of processed foods from cupcakes to salad dressing. Restaurants are going to have a harder time justifying why they should give you a three-egg omelet for a dollar. And on the chicken meat side, the situation is also worse this time than it was last time,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson explained that the outbreak in 2015 impacted mostly laying hens and pullets (sexually immature birds) and very few broliers (the birds consumers eat).
However, this time around, he says some 9 percent of the affected birds are broiler chickens, “which will lead to already-high prices for chicken going even higher.”
Emily Metz, president of the American Egg Board, estimates that 5 percent of laying hen flocks have been impacted by the virus, but is optimistic about where this outbreak is going.
“We learned some tough lessons in 2015, that our biosecurity wasn’t where it needed to be. We’ve invested in huge changes,” she said.
While she admits prices are rising she points the finger squarely on farmer’s input costs rising as the main culprit for increased food costs.
“It is alarming, and I share in the concern about affordability. But eggs are still one of the most affordable proteins, bar none,” she said.