My work life and in many regards, my personal life, has been consumed by avian influenza these days.
Avian flu. Bird flu. Call it whatever you want - it's certainly in the news in a big way.
This dreaded virus - a super potent strain new to the U.S. that is deadly to poultry - has been making the rounds through Minnesota turkey flocks since late March, and has since hit various midwest states and latched on to egg layer hens and backyard flocks as well. All with devastating effects.
One of my roles as Communications Director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association is to handle all initial media requests and inquiries that come in. I talk with reporters and editors, get a handle on what they are looking for, and schedule interviews (as needed) with the appropriate people.
During this avian flu surge, this has been no easy task and I'm sometimes amazed, actually, at how much time I spend on a daily basis handling these requests. Not surprisingly, the media has been relentless in the pursuit of this story. The coverage, overall, has been very fair and mostly accurate - but multiple requests come in daily, even on weekends, and reporters everywhere want to know the same thing poultry farmers want to know - how is this virus infecting flocks?
While we don't have a definitive answer yet, we do have teams of experts on the ground, studying and questioning everything that is going on. I have no doubt that in Minnesota - #1 in the U.S. for turkeys raised - we have the finest team of experts in the country trying to figure this virus out. And we will get to the bottom of it.
Until then, I can share a few media tips from my hundreds of interactions with reporters from all over the U.S. during this avian flu outbreak:
Tips for Farmers
Tips for Reporters
I sincerely hope that your farm never has to go through what some of the poultry farmers are experiencing right now. But if you do, please know there are many people who work in agriculture that have your back - and we will help you through both the best and worst of times.
#TeamEffort - that's what it's all about in agriculture.
I feel like I'm a bit of a broken record in my last few blog posts - most have been related to the highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza (HPAI) that has hit turkey flocks in Minnesota. Since early March, HPAI has caused the deaths or the required euthanization of over 1.6 million turkeys, and the strain has also been confirmed in South Dakota, Wisconsin and Iowa (along with earlier confirmations on the West Coast and in Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas).
Turkeys are not the only birds susceptible to HPAI - chickens are, too. And this is not only a problem for poultry raised commercially. We've also seen cases in Minnesota and Wisconsin in backyard chicken flocks.
This highly virulent strain of HPAI has never been seen before in the U.S., and in Minnesota alone we have teams of folks from USDA as well as state agencies such as the Department of Agriculture, Board of Animal Health, Department of Natural Resources, and the Department of Health working together to stop the virus from spreading further.
My usual workload at the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association has essentially been put on hold and HPAI is pretty much all I am working on right now. Our organization is trying to make sure the communication lines stay open between farmers, poultry companies, and vendors - not only in Minnesota but in our neighboring states as well. We also looking long-term at what we need in terms of research, infrastructure and more, as USDA tells us we can expect this strain to be around for the next 3-5 years.
Fighting HPAI is truly a team effort.
That said, it is important to note there are two key messages that consumers should know and feel confident about:
The turkey products you purchase are completely safe to eat:
There is also very little human health risk:
I hope soon that I will be able to write a blog post about something other than avian influenza. The experts tell us that these outbreaks should slow down as the weather warms up and the migratory birds make their way to their spring/summer homes.
Until then, I have compiled a list of web links that might be helpful if you are looking for more information about HPAI - or if you are raising poultry in your backyard. If you have any questions, please feel free to respond in the comments section below and I'll do my best to find answers for you.
USDA Websites on Avian Influenza
Updates on Avian Influenza in Minnesota
Backyard Flock Biosecurity Information
What Hunters Should Know
Human Health Information
Emotional Impact on Farmers (blog posts)
My last few posts have been pretty serious, touching on the highly-pathogenic avian influenza virus that is hitting Minnesota turkeys pretty hard right now. (Check a couple of them out here and here.) It's certainly a stressful time for everyone involved, and my office (the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association) is doing everything we can to help the farmers and the industry get through this rough patch.
That said, I'm going to switch it up a bit with this post and talk about how I relax after a particular busy and/or stressful day. When I go home at night, sometimes I need to decompress and not think about turkeys for a little while. To do that, I have a few tried-and-true methods that help me relax for a while and focus on life with my family:
None of these stress relievers are especially remarkable in any way, but they don't need to be. These just work for me.
What are your stress relievers when life on the farm or at your job gets busy?
You may have seen in the news, recently, that a virus called "highly-pathogenic avian influenza (or HPAI) has hit three turkey farms in Minnesota. This is definitely no April Fool's joke - and it's most certainly not good news for the turkeys, the farmers that care for these birds, or the industry as a whole.
This particular strain of HPAI appears to be very lethal - once a turkey comes down with the virus, mortality comes quite swiftly and before the farmer and his/her farm workers can do anything about it, thousands in a flock die. Beyond the financial ramifications of losing so many birds, the emotional toll on farmers cuts deep. As livestock farmers know, it is never easy to see the animals you care for suffer, especially in this case when there is nothing that can be done once the virus hits so quickly.
Because this is such a dangerous strain of HPAI, the news media in Minnesota has been very on top of covering the story and our office at the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association has taken numerous requests for media interviews.
We have also updated our website with a page on avian influenza with helpful information and a link to delve more fully into the topic, if you so choose. You can find this here: http://minnesotaturkey.com/farmers/hot-topics/avia
Through all of this, I've been tracking some of the comments on social media (Facebook, especially) with the idea that I can jump in and correct inaccuracies, as needed, and hopefully provide consumers with a sense of calm if they are worried about the turkey they are purchasing. Most comments have been well-received, with just a few bordering on the typical craziness we might expect from a few on social media.
I thought I'd take some of the questions I have seen and answer them right here because if there's one thing I know after the past few weeks of dealing with HPAI, it's that people want more information on this.
While in Minnesota this particular strain of HPAI has only hit turkeys thus far, it is true that chickens are also susceptible to it. The Minnesota Turkey Growers Association is urging all poultry farmers - whether commercial, organic or backyard flock owners - to be vigilant. Some advice even suggests folks might consider keeping poultry indoors if they can - safe and away from possible carriers of HPAI, such as waterfowl. This is definitely not unreasonable advice. There's a reason most commercial turkey farmers keep their turkeys in barns - the birds are much safer from disease and predators.
If turkeys die because of HPAI, the farmer absorbs all the losses. For any turkey that has to be euthanized at the farm, USDA does have an indemnity program that compensates farmers.
Poultry flocks in Minnesota are routinely tested for avian influenza. If an HPAI strain is confirmed positive, a flock is immediately quarantined and it is protocol that all remaining birds on that particular farm - whether sick or healthy - be euthanized to reduce the risk of infection spreading. Absolutely no birds are shipped off the farm to go to market - it's illegal to do so.
In other words, you can be assured the turkey you purchase in supermarkets and restaurants is completely safe. As is always the case, please make sure you cook your turkey to 165 degrees as measured by a meat thermometer.
We know the virus strain can be spread through droppings or nasal discharge of an infected bird, which can, in turn, contaminate dust and soil. This is how the virus can be picked up by people on their shoes and clothes or on equipment and vehicles. We also know that migrating waterfowl are carriers of avian influenza. Beyond that, experts in Minnesota aren't exactly sure yet how HPAI is getting inside turkey barns. This is why tight biosecurity in and around barns is so important.
It doesn't. The threat of humans contracting HPAI is very low and in fact, there are no confirmed cases of this happening in the U.S. When HPAI is confirmed in a flock, the people who work closely with the birds day in and day out are monitored for several days by the Department of Health as a safety precaution, but for the general public, there is no risk.
First of all, it's important to note that turkeys are never put in cages. (Can you imagine the size of the cages needed for 15,000, 25-pound turkeys in a barn?!)
Second of all, most avian experts and turkey farmers will tell you that poultry raised indoors is considered safer from avian influenza than pastured or backyard flocks that are wide open to the threats from waterfowl and other disease sources.
It's true that our industry has always worked closely with the Minnesota Board of Animal Health on a state level and USDA nationally to monitor diseases. Our avian health experts at the University of Minnesota, as well, track avian influenza and work with our growers to make sure they have the latest information about disease prevention and biosecurity. Still, unfortunately, it doesn't mean that the threat of HPAI can be 100 percent eradicated. We're not sure yet where this particular strain in Minnesota has come from, but there are teams of experts working nearly around the clock to figure this mystery out and make sure the poultry industry - and our turkeys, chickens and laying hens - in Minnesota remains strong and healthy.
An early morning look at part of the 2015 Midwest Poultry Federation Convention show floor last week, just before the event opened.
March, for me, was consumed with putting the final planning touches on the Midwest Poultry Federation Convention. This is an event that my office spends a good chunk of the year getting ready for. It's also the largest regional poultry show in the U.S. - with a heavy emphasis on education for poultry farmers and two exhibit halls full of companies showcasing their latest equipment, services and technology.
While we definitely had a successful event, something did get in the way of the attendance we were expecting: Highly-Pathogenic Avian Influenza, or HPAI for short. (You can read about this more fully in my previous blog post here.)
About three weeks prior to the convention, HPAI broke in one turkey flock in Minnesota, putting the turkey industry on high alert and nerves on edge for many farmers. A week or so later, the same strain was found in Missouri and Arkansas.
While this news can sound like a death knell for poultry farmers - this strain of HPAI quickly devastated the entire flock of turkeys in Minnesota within days - it does NOT pose a human health threat or food safety risk. This is a virus that can spread from wild birds to commercial poultry, but it does not enter the food supply and no humans with close contact to infected birds have gotten sick.
Nevertheless, poultry farmers are concerned and the entire industry is watching things closely this spring. That concern led some people to bypass attending the MPF Convention, choosing instead to stay close to home.
As the show organizers of MPF, our office immediately contacted avian health experts to get their take on whether or not it makes sense to limit traveling to a show such as ours because of the HPAI threat. Their take? It doesn't make sense. By following a few common sense biosecurity rules (that farmers should be following already), people could rest assured that attending the MPF Convention would not elevate the threat of HPAI.
But despite that message, some people did stay away. It's unfortunate because they missed hearing all the latest information about HPAI from a whole passel of experts, whom we brought in last minute to calm fears and provide education on what farmers can do to ensure the safety and health of their flocks. That's really what meetings like the MPF Convention are all about - bringing together farmers, poultry companies, industry folks, and experts to learn from and network with each other.
Nevertheless, I am fully aware that HPAI is a serious threat and I do understand why farmers may have chosen to stay close to home and close to their birds. This is scary stuff that has the potential to impact livelihoods.
Still, I have to admit on a personal level for me, it's a little frustrating that the very industry that prides itself on believing in what good science tells us would run nervously away from a meeting when standard biosecurity measures (such as showering before arriving and upon getting back home, and not wearing barn clothes or shoes to the event) would go a long way in keeping everyone (and their birds) safe.
I am happy to say, though, that we were able to make the best of the situation by bringing in a local Twin Cities television news station to broadcast live from our show floor, talking to a farmer and an HPAI expert. They spoke about how so many people, organizations, companeis, and government agencies are working together to alleviate the threat of HPAI; they reassured consumers that there is nothing to worry about from a food safety standpoint (keep eating your turkey, people!); and they showed that the poultry industry values events like MPF because of the education and networking offered to farmers. It was encouraging to see these positive, proactive messages of substance on our local news.
Minnesota Turkey Growers Association President John Gorton spoke to KARE-11 TV, live from the MPF Convention show floor last week.
As usual, the week brought with it a couple of, shall we say, "interesting" claims about poultry circulating in mainstream and social media outlets. This is no surprise, of course. It seems like those of us in agriculture could find some piece of misinformation nearly every day to refute.
On Friday evening, I was enjoying some downtime at home after a very busy week the office. While my husband was watching something on the History Channel, I was glancing through the latest issue of Redbook magazine, a popular women's magazine. All was going along just fine - typical fashion, recipes and exercise tips - until a headline caught my eye: "Food Labels, Demystified." Right below it was a paragraph about cage-free and free-range eggs, along with a drawing a chicken.
While I'm all for clarifying what cage-free and free-range actually mean, it was the later part of the paragraph that practically made steam come out of my ears: " ... neither guarantees that the birds actually went outside or were fed a diet free of pesticides and antibiotics."
Pesticides fed to chickens? Think about that for a moment. What does that even mean?
If I had to guess, I'd say the writer is referencing - albeit in a completely misleading way - the use of pesticides by farmers who raise corn and soybeans, which are the mainstays of a laying hen's diet. However, this simplistic statement makes the dangerous assumption that consumers should be worried about this.
They should not. Decades of scientific research of conventionally-raised corn and soybeans - including GMO varieties - backs me up on this. Plus, I can tell from my own personal experience that tons of research on poultry diets - and finding the optimal nutrition for birds - is happening every, single day. The farmers I work with spend a lot of time learning about bird nutrition and fine-tuning feed rations for their flocks because that, in turn, leads to a healthy, safe product for consumers.
And as a farmer friend of mine ( who has both conventional and organic production on her farm) so eloquently stated to me about this Redbook blurb when I posted it on Facebook: Labeling regarding health claims is regulated by the federal governments for both organic or conventional foods so everyone is playing by the same rules.
Hands down no question, I see every day that the health of the birds and making sure consumers are getting a safe product are the top priorities for farmers.
The problem is, of course, that most readers of Redbook have no knowledge of farming and only see the scary word "PESTICIDE" glaring out at them. It all comes down to a poorly written blurb that doesn't demystify a label, but rather further muddies the water and creates a sense of mistrust in farmers.
Also this past week, a friend of mine shared a link to a Change.org petition to "Stop Boiling Animals Alive!" Basically, the person who posted the petition wrote, "The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act is enforced by the USDA, but they decided it's acceptable to exclude chickens and turkeys—as if they're inanimate objects!"
Over 239,000 people have signed the petition - again, scary-sounding title so perfectly incites fear and mistrust - to date, but I think it's a safe assumption that most don't know the true details behind this. While it is true that Humane Methods of Slaughter Act does not apply to poultry, it is absolutely NOT true that poultry processing goes unregulated by USDA. That's just a completely erroneous claim and a dangerous statement to make.
USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has a set of guidelines for humane poultry slaughter under the "Poultry Products Inspection Act" (PPIA). I won't get into all the lengthy details, but the PPIA includes specific directives so that birds are handled humanely throughout the steps of processing. Is every processing plant perfect? Of course not - but I've never toured a poultry processing plant that didn't aim for 100% compliance with the guidelines. It would be foolish on many levels not to comply and USDA inspectors are in place at all times at the plants to make sure all is handled according to the PPIA. If not, companies may receive a non-compliance report relating to animal welfare and USDA will take action.
You can read more about poultry inspections and also the new rules for the modernization of the poultry inspection system at this website from the National Chicken Council.
I'm not going to lie - sometimes being an agriculture advocate can be exhausting. One small blurb in a mainstream magazine like Redbook can feel very much like a David vs. Goliath situation.
But it always helps to have supportive friends and colleagues, helping out, sharing information, and sometimes simply giving a word of encouragement. I - like so many of us - know that our communications efforts are worth it so I encourage you to keep at it and advocate for agriculture in ways that make sense for you.
A view of the 2014 Midwest Poultry Federation Convention - the largest regional poultry show in the U.S.
I'm writing this on the way home from the International Poultry and Processing Expo (IPPE) in Atlanta, a huge international poultry show with exhibits, education and networking. I haven't attended this particular event in years (probably at least 15!) so it was really beneficial for me to check it out.
Part of my job at the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association is to coordinate a large, regional trade show and conference for the poultry industry every year - the Midwest Poultry Federation (MPF) Convention - so often I was looking at IPPE through the eyes of a meeting planner. Details are king to me when creating and managing an event this size - from signage to rooms sets to how registration flows and how the accompanying mobile app works; it's all important to make sure the attendee experience is positive.
I also enjoyed running into many people in the poultry industry that I know - some I see more often than others but no matter what, we always catch up on the latest news and happenings.
For many in agriculture, attending events like these serve multiple purposes:
2014 Midwest Poultry Federation Convention
Winter is THE busy meetings season for agriculture organizations, whether it's your local Farm Bureau, a national event like IPPE or one of the other commodity organizations, or specialized groups like Common Ground, which brings together farm blogger women. And, of course, there are so many other conferences, trade show and events!
I have spent 20 years organizing our regional convention and have seen our event grow by leaps and bounds. I have also seen what a positive impact an event like ours has on farmers, as they get together, learn, explore, and talk about the challenges and rewards of raising poultry. I highly recommend you take advantage of one or more of these types of in-person opportunities - whether it is local, regional or national.
Are you attending a conference this winter? If so, what do you like best about these agriculture-focused events?
I've come across some interesting web links over the course of the last week or so. None are specifically related to each other (except they all have to do with agriculture and food), but I thought I'd share them all here and give you a few of my thoughts.
1) The Washington Post ran a story over the weekend about a recent survey by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics. The gist of the results: over 80 percent of Americans support "mandatory labels on foods containing DNA".
As in " deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), which is contained in almost all food.
My initially reaction, of course, was to shake my head in disbelief. As the article writer, states, "The Oklahoma State survey result is probably an example of the intersection between scientific ignorance and political ignorance, both of which are widespread. The most obvious explanation for the data is that most of these people don’t really understand what DNA is, and don’t realize that it is contained in almost all food. When they read that a strange substance called “DNA” might be included in their food, they might suspect that this is some dangerous chemical inserted by greedy corporations for their own nefarious purposes.
The article also mentions this little nugget as proof that the public's scientific knowledge, well, sucks: " A 2012 National Science Foundation survey even found that 25% of Americans don't know that the Earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa.
But where does this leave us? I don't think we can just laugh and look away. And it certainly will not do agriculture any favors to declare general stupidity of a part of the population. But how do we encourage more scientific knowledge and critical thinking skills - when we know, at the same time, that science doesn't reach people (at least at first), it's the emotional connections that reach people?
If one thing is clear, it's that those of us who work in agriculture have more communications work to do.
2) The Atlantic Monthly ran an article this past week that declared, "Essential Oils Might be the New Antibiotics." I'm not an expert in this area so I'm not going to debate the details of the studies mentioned in the article. I will say there seems to be some promise behind this science, however I don't know that I would jump on this yet as the "be-all, end-all" solution quite yet. More study is in order, but the potential of new information like this is always exciting.
What's frustrating to me, of course, is that the article itself throws out the usual biases we often hear about antibiotic use in animals. For instance: antibiotic are overused "to speed up growth and to compensate for the cramped, unsanitary living conditions the animals endure." And this: "some farmers need more powerful weapons because they’re trying to compensate for ongoing problems caused by improper cleaning practices and unsanitary living conditions."
There's no doubt that bad management can lead to problems in the barn. But to claim that most antibiotics are used under these pretenses is absurd. The farmers I know make clean barns, safe living environments and good animal husbandry the key tenants of their profession - because they know these things will go a long way toward ensuring the health and well-being of their birds.
3) Finally, I've been watching this story take shape since late December: the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) has recommended that lean meat be removed from foods recommended for a healthy diet.
“The omission is stunning,” NAMI Vice President for Scientific Affairs Betsy Booren told Meatingplace.com. “By not including it, they are completely ignoring any nutritional value that lean meat has to the population.”
Stunning is right. And apparently this was all done behind closed doors, which sounds a little suspect to me.
As I've written before, I eat meat. I love lean protein like chicken, turkey as well as lean cuts of beef and pork and I believe these options are part of a well-balanced diet. If you don't want to eat meat, that's fine and I respect that it's your choice. But to completely eliminate a nutritious source of protein from a set of national guidelines is worrisome and speaks to a larger, behind-the-scenes, political agenda that could have far-reaching future effects on farmers, ranchers, food companies and the rest of us.