By Jack Weatherly
Avian flu has been confirmed in two commercial poultry flocks in Pickens County, Ala., near the Mississippi line, a week after three commercial breeders had to kill more than 70,000 chickens in Lincoln County, Tenn., near the border with Alabama.
The Alabama state veterinarian announced that the Pickens County birds are under quarantine after testing positive for the disease at a commercial breeding operation, according to the Associated Press.
Dr. Tom Tabler, poultry science professor at the Mississippi State Extension Service, said on Wednesday the strain is what is known as low-pathogenic, which means it is not as deadly as the high-pathogenic strain that was found in Lincoln County, Tenn.
Nevertheless, Tabler said, the birds will be destroyed. Avian flu can mutate, and so some low-pathogen strains, such as the ones discovered in Alabama, can become the deadlier strain, which usually kills 95 percent to 100 percent of the infected fowl.
No signs of the flu have been detected in Mississippi, Tabler said. But he added that the low-pathogenic strain is harder to detect because it does not necessarily kill the birds. They are tested, however, when it is suspected they are sick, Tabler said.
Avian influenza has been confirmed in a flock of chickens at a commercial farm in northwest Georgia, according to the AP.
Julie McPeake, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Agriculture, said Monday it’s the first time bird flu has ever been found in commercial flocks in Georgia. She said routine screening detected the infected chickens at a poultry breeder in Chattooga County and all 18,000 chickens in the flock were euthanized.
McPeake said none of the birds showed symptoms, leading agriculture officials to suspect they were infected with low-pathogenic bird flu. None of the infected chickens entered the food supply.
Chattooga County is located on the Georgia-Alabama state line, two counties away from Tennessee.
State labs can detect the disease, but only the federal lab in Ames, Ia., can make the official confirmation, he said.
Mississippi’s $2.9 billion poultry industry dodged the 2015 outbreak of avian flu, which forced the destruction of 50 million birds in the Midwest. The disease is brought into the region by wild geese and ducks, which are unaffected by it, Tabler said. Agriculture officials say avian flu poses no risk to humans.
The industry learned from the 2015 catastrophe but which has weathered the disruption.
As states get what they are, unofficially, sure is avian influenza. “Tennessee had a pretty good idea that there was a high-path influenza.” The state lab had a “positive hit” and the fowl were dying.
Two years ago, “everybody had to wait for confirmation from the lab in Iowa.” Now, steps can be taken to destroy the infected birds, he said.
“We’ve got equipment in place, we’ve got people in place.”
Biosecurity has improved since 2015, Tabler said. For example, anyone entering a chicken house must not wear boots worn outside, he said. “People cannot be too careful.”
There are six processors in the state $2.9 billion poultry industry: Laurel-based Sanderson Farms, third-largest producer in the United States; Tyson Foods, based in Springdale, Ark., and the largest producer in the country; Koch Foods; Peco Foods, Wayne Farms and Mar-Jac Poultry. Cal-Maine Foods, which is based in Jackson, is the nation’s largest in-shell fresh eggs.
Frank Singleton, spokesman for Oakwood, Ga.-based Wayne Foods, said the company has tightened security at all of its facilities in five states, including a processing plant and hatchery in Laurel. One thing it has done is limited visits to grower facilities to essential personnel only, Singleton said.
Phil Stayer, corporate veterinarian for Sanderson, said, “The closer it gets, the more we do.” The processor started increasing communication within the company and with contract growers even before the Pickens County discovery, Stayer said.
Stayer said the 2015 outbreak was more of an export concern for Sanderson because the Laurel-based company specializes in broilers and the virus decimated laying hen and turkey flocks.
Tabler, the poultry scientist, said a 20,000-chicken flock had to be destroyed last week in western Kentucky, indicating perhaps that the migratory birds are carrying the disease northward.
Warmer temperatures, 85 degrees and higher, will kill the virus, which is not a hardy variety, Tabler said.