The bird flu sweeping through U.S. poultry farms is starting to reach alarming levels after Iowa, the biggest U.S. egg producer, said flocks housing as much as 16 percent of the state’s egg-laying chickens may be infected.
The roughly 9.5 million chickens in Iowa that confirmed positive for the virus or are presumed to have it brings the number of birds in infected flocks to more than 13 million nationwide, according to figures from the state and federal agriculture departments. About 30 cases of the disease have been confirmed in the U.S. in just the past week, helping to make this the worst domestic outbreak in three decades.
“This is a big number,” Bill Northey, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, said on a conference call with reporters on Monday. “Certainly, there is a lot of healthy, active birds out there still laying eggs, and we hope this doesn’t move beyond this. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. There is a big economic impact.”
U.S. farms are stepping up clean-up efforts and Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton declared a state of emergency as poultry buyers from Europe to Asia to place restrictions on American shipments. At stake is the roughly $44 billion made from poultry and eggs produced in the U.S., the latest government figures show.
While the disease started popping up in wild birds and waterfowl in December along the Pacific Coast, the rate of reported cases has vastly accelerated since March as commercial flocks in the Midwest began to report infections. On Monday, Center Fresh Group said the disease was testing presumptive positive at two Iowa facilities with about 5.5 million birds, which were included in the total state count provided by the agriculture department.
“The Center Fresh team will continue to work cooperatively with state and federal regulatory officials, as well as with our colleagues in the egg farming community, to take the necessary steps to limit the spread of this devastating disease,” JT Dean, the chief operating officer at Sioux Center, Iowa-based Center Fresh, said in an e-mailed statement.
Cal-Maine Foods Inc., the largest U.S. producer of shell eggs, doesn’t have any layer flocks in Iowa, according to a 2014 annual report posted on the company’s website. Shares of the Jackson, Mississippi-based company jumped 14 percent on Tuesday, heading for the biggest gain since October 2008.
Avian influenza has been found primarily in commercial turkey flocks, particularly in Minnesota, where abundant waterways attract wild geese and ducks, suspected of carrying the disease. Egg-laying hens in neighboring Wisconsin have also been infected.
The risk to humans from the flu strains that have been found in the U.S. are low, the Department of Agriculture has said, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The USDA on Monday confirmed the disease in six more flocks in Iowa, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Minnesota, the nation’s top turkey producer. Affected premises are being quarantined and birds will be “depopulated,” to prevent the spread of the disease, the agency said.