NC Ag Dept: Avian Flu on the rise but impact isolated for now

**FILE** In this Nov. 15, 2006 file photo, a 19-week-old turkey is shown on the Clayton Straughn farm near Turkey, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

RALEIGHSince the first case of High Path Avian Influenza was discovered just over three weeks ago in Johnston County at a commercial turkey farm, North Carolina has seen a steady uptick in numbers. The positive sample was identified by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Veterinary Diagnostic Lab in Raleigh and later verified by the USDA APHIS National Veterinary Services Lab in Iowa.   

According to the department’s public affairs assistant director, Heather Overton, the state has been closely monitoring the flu’s impact on the wild bird population. She says that Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler has put the right safeguards in place to curtail the damaging effects of the virus on N.C. farmers and their poultry populations, while also minimizing the economic impact for consumers.  

While the United States has confirmed the HPAI virus in at least 50 farms in 12 states since late January, Overton says that North Carolina has issued strict biosecurity protocols to limit future outbreaks. “With North Carolina situated directly on the Atlantic Flyway which connects with the Canadian Flyway that ties into Europe where the virus originated, we knew it was coming. In January alone over 140 wild birds asymptomatically tested positive for the virus,” Overton said in a recent interview with NSJ.   

One of the most important biosecurity measures in place since January has involved the containment of all commercial poultry inside facilities where no exposure can occur in the wild with other fowl. Alongside these measures, farmers have increased surveillance of flocks and are performing regular testing to detect the virus at its earliest point of infection. Since the last week of March, the avian flu has required the depopulation of nearly 482,000 chickens and turkeys affecting six farms in Wayne County and three in Johnston County. In the most recent efforts to stop contagion, Commissioner Troxler has suspended all poultry shows as well as farm tours and public sales to avoid any traces of the virus to be introduced in the public.  

“We had hoped to avoid High Path Avian Influenza hitting our poultry industry in North Carolina, but with positive cases in the wild bird population and a number of other states having positive cases in commercial flocks, we knew our state was at high risk. We do not make the decision to suspend public shows and sales lightly. HPAI is a serious threat to our poultry industry and this is a precaution to help limit the introduction of the virus to backyard and commercial flocks and protect North Carolina’s poultry industry,” said Troxler.      

While the virus itself has proven to have no impact on humans, its highly contagious nature among chickens and turkeys has meant implementing guidelines to protect the state’s vital poultry industry, with farmers being encouraged to enforce stricter measures to keep the virus out of their barns by limiting who enters, sanitizing vehicles, and requiring workers to change footwear and clothes.   

In all, more than 98,000 turkeys and 324,000 broilers have been killed and composted at farms so far. Officials said they hoped that would reduce the spread of the virus. The disease poses a risk to backyard flocks too.  Once detected, Overton explains, a poultry population is depopulated and then composted on site where it does not impact the food supply chain. State veterinarian Mike Martin explains that after an outbreak is detected farms within a 10 km zone undergo vigorous testing for weeks following. “Under HPAI protocols we will be actively testing other flocks within a 10 km or 6.2 mile zone in collaboration with our federal and industry partners.”  

With North Carolina being #1 in the nation for commercial chicken broilers (chickens raised for meat), they are also the top agricultural commodity in the state, representing more than $3.6 billion in cash receipts for farmers in 2019. There were 916 million broilers raised in North Carolina in 2019.  In 2019, N.C. growers raised 31 million turkeys, worth more than $674 million in cash receipts. North Carolina is the second-largest turkey-producing state in the nation.  As far as the N.C. egg industry, more than $451 million Counted for 2019 in farm income boasting more than 3.79 billion eggs. North Carolina ranks first in the nation in both poultry and egg cash receipts.   

While infection numbers and farms affected have slowed down, North Carolina will remain on high alert for any signs of outbreak. Martin has warned “the threat of high path avian influenza is statewide. Commercial operations and backyard flock owners should continue to follow strict biosecurity measures. If your birds are sick or dying, report it right away to your local veterinarian, the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Veterinary Division, 919-707-3250 or the N.C. Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory System, 919-733-3986.”