Food & Drink: (Flu) Free Bird

Low-density flocks, good weather keep avian flu out of the North Bay

by Nate Voge

Since the start of the current U.S. avian flu outbreak in December, more than 46 million chickens, turkeys and ducks—about one-third of the processed egg supply—have been culled to fight the virus.

“Because of the outbreak in the Midwest, people are on their toes and there’s a heightened sense of urgency because these are very virulent viruses,” says Sonoma Country Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar.

But so far the North Bay has avoided the problem.

Wild birds spread the virus to domestic flocks through contact or contamination in shared waterways. The Centers for Disease Control says the risk for human infection is low, and no human cases have been reported.

“We have two fairly good-sized egg-laying operations in Petaluma,” says Linegar. “We’re increasing our biosecurity measures now just as a precaution.” Precautions include egg inspections, footbaths for those who enter facilities, and washing vehicles.

Prices of larger egg brands have already increased as the supply of hens has dropped. To help baking industries, the USDA allowed pasteurized egg imports from the Netherlands, the only country other than Canada from which the United States imports eggs.

Though most avian flu cases are in the Midwest, one reached a Foster Farms turkey ranch in Stanislaus County in January. “California is much more experienced at dealing with these sorts of outbreaks,” says Linegar. “It’s good that we don’t have clusters of large poultry operations all together.”

At Sunrise Farms in Petaluma, which more than 1 million hens call home, managing partner Arnie Riebli says they’re taking extra precautions in washing down the facility.

“If a chicken gets it, she’s going to die,” he says. “It has nothing to do with eggs.”

Riebli says chickens and other poultry are less susceptible to the virus than turkeys. The largest concentration of turkeys are in the Upper Midwest—Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Decentralized poultry operations limit the threat of flock-to-flock spread, but wild birds still pose a threat. “It just takes one bird to get in the pens,” says David Marson, a sales clerk at Western Farm Center in Santa Rosa, where they incubate eggs and inspect backyard chickens brought in by the public.

The store also put up a net to protect its birds from interacting with wild species. Marson speculates that climate could play a role in the severity of the outbreak in the Midwest, where winter temperatures are much lower and favor the virus. The USDA predicts the hot, dry summer months will help kill off the rapidly mutating virus.

At Salmon Creek Ranch in Bodega Bay, the threat of wild birds passing along the virus has raised concern. Jocelyn Brabyn, daughter of owners John and Lesley Brabyn, says that since the recent outbreak they’ve built a prototype flight pen to keep their ducks safe from contact with wild birds. The ducks aren’t crammed into pens and have room to roam the pasture and supplement their feed with bugs.

“Our ducks are eating worms out there in the grass,” Brabyn says. “Places that are raising birds naturally have better immunity.”

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