As birds begin to travel north, they may carry highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) that has killed tens of millions of flocks and disrupted the egg industry.
The bird migration season started in February and will end in May. Scholars familiar with the bird species are concerned about the possibility of traveling birds spreading the flu to commercial flocks.
Migratory birds can carry the virus without showing any signs of infection, said Rodney Holcomb, an agricultural economist at Oklahoma State University.
The birds that aviary experts are most concerned about as carrying HPAI, Holcomb said, are raptors, including hawks, owls and eagles, and waterfowl, such as ducks and geese. These wild birds make up the majority of cases reported on the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s list of confirmed cases of avian influenza.
Poultry are especially susceptible to infection by migrating raptors that act as predators, Holcomb said. “Hawks, owls and eagles love to hunt other birds, especially broilers and turkeys when they get the chance,” he said. “Even if they don’t kill a bird, the fact that they attached themselves to a bird means they could give the flu to that bird and therefore to the entire flock.”
If HPAI spreads more easily, the virus could lead poultry and egg producers to cull millions more birds, making the industry’s supply situation even more dire.
The meat and protein industry is more prepared to handle the crisis than it was in 2015, the last time bird flu ravaged flocks, Holcomb said. However, USDA feed price projections in 2023 show a high range of volatility, a possible increase of more than 20% in egg prices depending on how spring migration impacts the trajectory of the virus.
The next month and a half will be critical in determining what food safety will look like for the coming year and how well the industry will be able to protect itself against the spread of the virus, said Maurice Pitesky, professor of poultry health epidemiology and food safety at the University of California. , Davis.
The long-term impact could result in higher virus concentrations only among waterfowl and raptors, he said, but there are many unknowns, such as whether the virus will mutate.
“We could be dealing with a virus that is endemic to wild birds in North America, and we may only have to deal with that part,” Pitesky said. “What we don’t want is for the virus to be endemic in domestic poultry, because that has all kinds of other economic and food safety ramifications.”