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.
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.
This is a bird flu but it's only affecting turkeys in Minnesota right now - how safe are the chickens?
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.
Are farmers insured against such losses?
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.
How do they determine no diseased bird goes to market?
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.
How does HPAI spread?
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.
How does this affect the health of people?
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.
Maybe locking a bunch of birds up in tight cages isn't such a good idea?
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.
Funny, I thought there were entire departments of the federal and state government dedicated to monitoring and preventing this sort of stuff from happening.
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.