Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

U.S. Bird Flu Scourge Means Months of Dead Turkey Cleanup

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Millions of turkeys ravaged by bird flu this year have left an additional chore for the U.S. farms with dead animals: cleaning up for at least two months before business is back to normal.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza has been found in at least 60 commercial poultry flocks, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show. The majority are turkeys, and Minnesota, the nation’s top producer, has been hit hardest with an estimated 2.6 million causalities. On Thursday, Governor Mark Dayton declared a state of emergency, ordering support for animal health and agriculture agencies.

At stake is the roughly $4.8 billion made from the more than 200 million turkeys produced in the U.S., the latest government figures show. Flocks with more than 3 million of the birds have been affected by the disease in this outbreak, the worst in three decades. Countries from Europe to Asia have placed restrictions on American poultry shipments.

“If everything works right” getting a poultry barn running again will take eight to nine weeks, Steve Olson, the executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association in Buffalo, said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “This is completely new. We’ve had occasional cases in the U.S., but not this many.”

‘Star Gazing’

Turkeys showing flu symptoms stop eating and drinking, turn lethargic and begin “star gazing,” or twisting their necks, John Clifford, the USDA’s chief veterinarian, said Wednesday on a conference call. Those signs can be followed “pretty rapidly” by death, he said.

Sick or dead birds are analyzed to confirm the disease, said Lori Miller, a senior staff officer and environmental engineer at USDA’s Animal Plant Health and Inspection Service. She is part of the response team to the virus in Minnesota.

Hormel Foods Corp., the owner of Jennie-O turkeys, said Monday that annual profit may be eroded because bird flu is hampering production.

Corn for July delivery fell for a fifth day in Chicago, the longest run in 11 weeks. Prices slid 0.5 percent to $3.7475 a bushel on concern the outbreak will hurt feed demand.

This flu is “extremely infectious and fatal,” according to the USDA. Once the virus is confirmed as positive in a flock, any birds remaining are euthanized in a humane manner, Miller said Tuesday in a telephone interview.

Asphyxiation Process

The American Veterinary Medical Association supports the use of water-based foam as a method for flock “depopulation.”

“There’s a crew that comes in, and they use that foamer to euthanize the birds,” Olson of the turkey association said. “It’s basically an asphyxiation process” and causes “no stress to the bird,” he said.

Foaming crews are contracted by the USDA, said Clifford, the department’s chief veterinarian.

In Minnesota, infected birds killed are typically composted in the barn, Olson of the turkey association said. That process takes a few weeks, Miller of the USDA unit said. A federal appraiser visits farms before any depopulation occurs to provide owners some compensation for living birds, Olson said.

A cleanup team will remove and dispose of wood chips, bedding and other material from barns, using anything from hand shovels to front-end loaders, Miller said. The facility is swept out, and cleaning begins with workers using backpack sprayers and power washers to hose down barns with soap and water, she said.

Most Important

“The soap part is very important because that inactivates the virus,” Miller said. “Just cleaning alone will get you pretty far in terms of getting rid of the virus. That’s probably the most important step.”

Premises are rinsed and allowed to dry before crews spray a disinfectant on every surface. After being sprayed and dried again, personnel take samples from surfaces for testing to make sure the virus is gone, Miller said. Barns have to sit empty for three weeks after cleaning and disinfection is complete, according to an e-mail from Joelle Hayden, a spokeswoman for the USDA’s Animal Plant Health and Inspection Service.

If the samples test negative for the virus, a “regulatory process” takes place to clear the facility and allow producers to restock barns with poultry, Miller of the USDA unit said.

Regular warm weather is needed to help quell the spread of the virus, Clifford said Tuesday on a media conference call with the Iowa Department of Agriculture.

On Thursday, Wisconsin, Minnesota’s eastern neighbor, reported its sixth bird flu case involving a flock of 90,000 turkeys in Barron County, the second discovery there. Iowa, to the south, reported its third case, affecting 34,000 turkeys in Sac County.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker on Monday authorized the state’s National Guard to help agriculture authorities respond to the flu in three counties.

China has banned U.S. poultry imports, and Japan, South Korea and Taiwan restricted shipments. Birds from infected flocks don’t enter the food system, according to the USDA.

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