Avian flu not yet detected in local poultry
Grocery store shoppers have likely faced sticker shock in the past week or so if they’ve reached for a carton of eggs.
The price has more than doubled because of an outbreak of avian influenza.
Although incidents have not yet been reported in Tennessee, it is currently in 20 states, mostly in the Midwest.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the outbreak has affected more than 47 million birds. Entire flocks have fallen to the disease or been slaughtered by farmers trying to prevent its spread.
So far, the virus has not affected broiler chickens that are purchased at the grocery store.
Kroger and Sprouts representatives did not return calls requesting updates on egg prices and availability, but two local suppliers at the area farmers markets say their flocks are healthy and they are currently able to meet customers’ demands.
Susan Melton-Piper operates Mammaw Melton’s Heirloom Gardens of Whiteville. She brings 15-25 dozen eggs to the local markets each week and said that she always sells out. Many are reserved for regular customers.
“Avian flu is something I try to keep up with anyway,” she said Monday. “I guess I was born OCD, so I try to implement biosecurity stuff as best we can.”
Her eggs come from cage-free chickens with no added hormones or antibiotics, and they are salmonella free. She is also a former health inspector and has degrees in toxicology and microbiology, so she knows the avian flu signs to watch for in her flock.
“I think it’s going to be interesting as this goes on,” she said.
Her chickens are not kept indoors in close quarters as large commercial chicken farms do, and that probably helps with their health, she said. “I think when you have close quarters like that, you tend to run into problems, in my opinion.”
Since the avian flu’s effects have hit the headlines, Melton-Piper has seen a small uptick in the number of egg customers, with more people asking her to reserve eggs for them.
Her price has remained steady at $4 per dozen, compared to $5.50 or more per dozen at other Memphis-area markets, she said.
Bennett Farm, a two-acre family farm between Millington and Arlington, has about 30 hens and sells about six dozen eggs weekly at local farmers markets at $4 per dozen.
Eggs from the farm’s laying hens are not labeled as organic because owner Mary Bennett treated the hens with medicine when they got colds this past winter. She said they are healthy and happy because they get plenty of space to scratch for bugs, supplemental food and a safe fenced-in area to protect them and their eggs from foxes, raccoons and other predators.
She has heard people talking about rising egg prices, but she said, “I hadn’t really noticed because I don’t buy eggs in the grocery store.”
She checks her flock’s health often but said she hasn’t seen or heard of signs of avian flu locally.
“We watch for sickness among the birds and any other dead birds in the area, because you always have to be on the alert.”
Catching an outbreak early is important. Bennett said, “There’s not much you can do about it but sacrifice the birds that get it and save the ones you can.”
Commercial operations are at greater risk because the large feed trucks can spread disease from farm to farm if drivers are not careful, Bennett said.
The disease can be spread by contamination of clothes, boots and vehicles, and crowded conditions make it easier for the disease to spread.
She is concerned that wild bird populations will continue to spread the avian flu.
“If it gets into the area and the wild birds get it, my birds will probably get it too. … We’re all crossing our fingers and all hoping they can nip it in the bud.”
Avian influenza is likely transmitted by infected ducks and geese, according to Tom Tabler, extension professor in the Poultry Science Depart-ment at Mississippi State University Extension Service.
They can carry the virus but rarely get sick and die, he said. “But that’s not the case with turkeys and commercial layers. If they get it, they do get sick and die.”
Tabler said the virus showed up in the U.S. in December on the West Coast in Washington state. It has gradually worked its way east, mainly following the flyway the ducks and geese use when migrating.
“The two worst states are Minnesota, where a lot of turkeys are grown, and Iowa, the largest table egg- producing state in the country,” he said.
“All told, turkeys and commercial birds, the last count – and this was last week – we’re talking about 46 million commercial birds that have been euthanized,” Tabler said. “We have roughly 15 percent fewer laying chickens in the country than we did at the first of the year.”
Consequently, because of the law of supply and demand, the price for eggs has risen dramatically.
In April, he said, the average price for a dozen large eggs in the grocery store was $1.29. Earlier this week, that price had risen to $2.65.
“How long the prices are going to stay high is anybody’s guess,” Tabler said. “Cases of avian influenza have slowed down in the last few weeks – the virus apparently doesn’t like hot weather – and that’s a decent indication that the eggs have topped out in price. But even if the price started back down today, it wouldn’t get back to where it was in April. Prices may go down a nickel a dozen tomorrow or a dime next week. It may be a month or two, maybe longer than that. Things that go up that fast never come down that fast.”
Are we safe?
The USDA has issued a reassuring statement about the safety of the food supply: “The United States has the strongest AI surveillance program in the world so that the food supply and our people remain safe. No human infections with these viruses have been detected, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers the risk to the general public to be minimal. America’s food supply is safe. Properly prepared and cooked poultry and eggs are safe to eat.”
Ginna Parsons of the Northeast Mississippi Journal contributed to this story.
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