March, 2006- Spyware, virus, Trojan horses. These are commonly-heard terms bantered about with respect to threats to our computers and computer technology, technologies that are protected by firewalls. As the press plays up the threat from another kind of virus, the Asian H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus, it is time for us to sit back and evaluate the poultry industry’s firewalls that will protect this food animal sector from the threat of a potentially devastating disease.
The modern integrated poultry industry has a number of built-in safeguards and strategies to deal with biological threats such as disease-causing bacteria and viruses, and we need to get the word out so that the public does not react irrationally to the HPAI challenge being faced worldwide and become fearful of its food supply. Nearly 100 percent of the poultry meat sold in grocery stores and restaurants in the United States comes from birds raised in an integrated agricultural system.
The advantages of the modern integrated poultry system are numerous and include the following:
• The birds and the major facilities associated with poultry production (such as the feed mill, hatchery, processing plant) are owned by the integrator. This allows for a high degree of control over how the birds are raised, fed and, ultimately, processed.
• Contract growers are dedicated to a specific company and specific processing plant providing single-age, all-in all-out production schemes, which break the chain of transmission of disease from one flock to the next. In addition, a large number of birds are typically cared for by a small number of people.
• The industry is an agribusiness that closely monitors the factors affecting the cost of production. These include morbidity, mortality, rate of daily gain, feed conversion, condemnations, etc., with special attention to costs down to hundredths of a cent. This means that health and production problems are identified and responded to very quickly.
• The industry has a strong veterinary health presence with constant involvement and monitoring by company veterinarians who work closely with state veterinary diagnostic laboratories.
• Enclosed housing limits potential exposure to disease-carrying wild birds and animals.
• Extensive biosecurity programs are in place that include limiting access to poultry houses, encouraging the use of dedicated clothing and boots, limiting the sharing of equipment and prohibiting grower and employee contact with psittacines and other fowl.
• The integrated poultry industry has a closed marketing system that does not buy or sell live birds in open livestock markets. Furthermore, there is little crossover of birds, people, or equipment between complexes and between companies.
• Integrated companies have the resources (people, equipment and supplies) readily available to rapidly contain an outbreak if one arises without having to wait for government assistance.
• The USA has an extensive and modern diagnostic network at the company, state and federal levels. USDA-APHIS’s National Poultry Improvement Program (NPIP) works cooperatively with the industry to monitor breeders and market birds for avian influenza year-round. In addition, the poultry producing states often have additional active and passive surveillance programs in place.
It is impossible for industry to be completely safe from this threat, but we do have effective response plans in place that would immediately quarantine affected and at-risk premises should the Asian H5N1 HPAI virus be detected. These plans include provisions for rapid depopulation and disposal of infected birds, effective cleaning and disinfection of premises prior to re-stocking and heightened surveillance of surrounding at-risk flocks.
While the USA is fortunate to have avoided the recent outbreaks of Asian H5N1 HPAI, our industry has had experience with several low-path AI outbreaks and an Exotic Newcastle Disease outbreak in recent years. These have tested our systems and led to their reassessment and improvement. Because HPAI is a devastating poultry disease as well as a human health threat, it is in the industry’s best interest to be transparent in its efforts to identify and control suspected HPAI outbreaks. Through rapid actions in identification and containment, successful eradication is the key to minimizing the economic and public health effects of this disease.
We need to make the public aware that it is in everybody’s best interests for poultry agri-businesses to take HPAI disease threats seriously. From a cost point of view, a widespread outbreak can easily devastate a company financially, no matter how large it may be. Primary areas where costs hit the hardest in an HPAI outbreak include the following:
• Quarantine, destruction and disposal costs
• Surveillance of surrounding at-risk poultry populations
• Disruption of normal business practices
• Product movement restrictions on the local, federal and international levels
• Worker safety and public health considerations
• The impact on allied industry and rural community businesses
The 2002 low-path AI outbreak in Virginia had direct costs estimated at $140 million and indirect costs estimated at $115 million. When such a disease strikes, the costs, not to mention the human health implications, can be staggering. A World Bank estimate of the cost of the HPAI outbreak in Vietnam approaches $690 million or 1.8 percent of its GNP. In Southeast Asia, the estimated costs range from $10 billion to $160 billion. This is not something we want to experience in the USA.
We have to hope that we are spared from HPAI in both our birds and in our people, but we should feel confident that if it does hit the USA, we have inherent advantages in our production system and the necessary programs in place to identify it, isolate it, and eradicate it in an expeditious manner. By doing so, we can assure our customers and the general public of a safe food supply and a dedication to do our part to reduce any risk to human health.