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Bird Flu Outbreak: Are Backyard Chickens Safe?

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The nationwide bird flu epidemic has caused the culling of approximately 40 million chickens and turkeys and affected at least 10 percent of the country’s egg supply, although its impact thus far seems mostly to be limited to large industrial farms.

The seemingly unstoppable H5N2 avian flu outbreak has already caused a spike in grocery store prices, leaving agricultural experts to predict an egg shortage and empty coolers where poultry should have been.

The virus has now been confirmed on farms in 16 states and in Canada as well – but the figures are still growing.

“I can’t tell you how many farmers this is affecting,” Oscar Garrison, director of food safety for United Egg Producers, which represents the ownership of 95 percent of egg-laying hens, told The Washington Post. “It’s been absolutely devastating. Just abysmal.”

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About 40 percent of the egg-laying flocks at factory farms in Iowa, the largest egg-producing state in the union, have been impacted. Post Holdings Inc., which make breakfast cereals and other foods, said the flu has impacted a whopping 35 percent of its chickens.

The bird flu outbreak has surely caused a poultry crisis in America, but the strong and rapidly evolving virus has struck primarily factory farms and has largely left small family farms and backyard chickens alone. Most small farms and backyard flock keepers allow their birds to free range on the property, as their ancestors did for generations.

Experts aren’t entirely sure how this strain is spreading, but they believe it does so through droppings left by migratory birds such as ducks and geese. If that’s the case, then backyard chickens can catch it. But so far, the virus has mostly spared them, although it has impacted some small farms in Iowa.

“No one wants to see (bird flu), but because of how it is transported through the air, for example, it’s not easily avoidable,” backyard chicken owner Sandra Mrachina told USA Today. “You do the best you can and take the precautions when you can, but at the same time it’s six chickens or a dozen chickens. It’s not a giant commercial chicken farm that’s going to lose its livelihood and maybe have trouble making ends meet.”

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chickenThere are several theories why factor chickens are more susceptible:

  • The ventilation system, meant to keep the birds cool in the buildings, brings in dirt and spreads the virus.
  • Employees and machines constantly on the move through the buildings could be accidentally aiding in the spread.
  • Factor chickens are locked up inside a building, where the virus can grow in dampness and cooler temperatures, while backyard chickens stay outside in the sun and warmth, which kills the virus.

Michael Greger, director of public health and animal agriculture for the Humane Society of the United States, told USA Today that when there is an outbreak, “any birds are susceptible.” Greger said.

“I don’t want all these backyard hobbyists to all of a sudden freak out because they must realize, as we’ve seen in the Midwest, most of these outbreaks are happening within these networks of these large commercial entities and not so much in these backyard flocks,” he said.

The USDA maintains on its website that “poultry and eggs that are properly prepared and cooked are safe to eat” – even if the meat is contaminated — and that the “chance of infected poultry entering the food chain is extremely low.”

Are you concerned about the spread of bird flu? Share your thoughts in the section below:

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