Poultry Industry Prepares to Fight Bird Flu with Controversial Vaccine

Poultry Industry Prepares to Fight Bird Flu with Controversial Vaccine

With millions of chickens and turkeys already infected with the deadly bird flu virus (H5N2), the USDA seems to be readying its last resort: a vaccine that could fight the virus.

But the vaccine may also cripple the U.S. poultry export industry, valued at more than $5.7 billion. The USDA has been trying to avoid resorting to a vaccine out of fears that it could lead to import bans on U.S. poultry and egg products.

“Inoculations produce antibodies that would make it difficult to tell if a bird had actually had the virus or simply been vaccinated,” reports Reuters.

With the infection spreading and threatening a significant number of birds, the USDA says that the vaccine might be the best way to thwart the infection—once the vaccine is ready, that is. It’s still months away from being produced. But pressure is on to create a remedy for the growing outbreak, which has already reached 12 states, “making it the most wide-reaching outbreak in over three decades,” Reuters explains.

A recent outbreak at an Iowa egg farm that houses more than 3.8 million birds is shaking up the poultry and egg industries, and the need for an effective weapon against the illness.

So far, China, South Korea and South Africa, three export markets, have total bans on U.S. poultry products, a hit of about $430 million, and with infection spreading, more bans could come. Likewise, the concerns over the safety of the virus vaccine could also bring more bans on U.S. poultry products.

Now, poultry farmers are employing stricter methods to thwart contamination and hopefully keep the export market alive: “They are requiring employees to shower before – and after – they enter a farm to remove any trace of the virus, sanitizing vehicles more carefully, tracking the movement of everything from chicks to barn litter, and turning away visiting workers, including electricians and plumbers and even postal employees,” Reuters explains. But even with strict measures in place, there are still risks, like wind bringing the virus into factory farms or barns that could wipe out an entire flock.

Once infected, birds are usually destroyed in efforts to keep the virus from spreading. And organically raised poultry products aren’t immune to the virus, either. But whether or not a vaccine would be allowed under the National Organic Program rules has yet to be determined.

According to Reuters, the bird flu virus has been lingering much longer than expected, and isn’t showing signs of slowing down with the USDA issuing “near daily notifications of new infections in Minnesota, the top turkey producing state.” Iowa, which is the biggest egg producing state in the U.S., has had far fewer cases of bird flu outbreaks, but it’s still taking precautions.

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Chickens on factory farm image via Shutterstock