HPAI: Life In The Red Zone
An outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) in the U.S., since February 2020, shows no signs of dissipating. According to the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), as of March 12, 2023, almost eight hundred flocks in the U.S. have tested positive for HPAI: three hundred twenty-one commercial flocks and four hundred sixty-nine backyard flocks. To date, almost sixty million birds have been culled.
During the HPAI outbreak in 2014-15, around fifty million birds were culled; the current outbreak has lasted much longer and has had a much greater effect on backyard flocks. “Backyard flocks” don’t mean just a few dozen birds; small-scale commercial flocks of several thousand birds have also been classified as backyard flocks by APHIS. One farmer commented that in 2015, HPAI was blamed on farm-to-farm transmission through farmworkers, while in 2022, the blame is placed on duck and geese droppings from wild flocks.
TESTING RULES THE ROOST
If a farm has one “non-negative” test for HPAI, the USDA will put the farm under quarantine, not lifting the quarantine until the farmer depopulates the flock. There doesn’t have to be any die-offs for a cull order, nor any sign of illness in the birds, just one non-negative test; APHIS or a state agency can keep testing until they get the result they want. Sometimes when there are no die-offs, a decline in egg production or a decrease in feed consumption can be signs that a flock is “infected,” but regardless of whether these conditions are present, one test can mean the flock’s end.
The test APHIS uses to determine whether HPAI is present is the Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) test, the same test that ginned up the numbers for Covid-19.
In April 2022, the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF) sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to APHIS asking for “All records from January 1, 2022 through April 22, 2022, in the possession, custody or control of APHIS describing the actual number of cycles (cycle threshold value) employed by APHIS to detect the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), using the Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test.”
APHIS’s response to the FOIA request indicated that the number of cycles ranged from twenty-six to forty-five—the upper range of that spectrum is known for nearly all false-positives in the test results.
If a farmer or hatchery disputes the accuracy of a test, they can ask for a second test but there is no right to that; if APHIS agrees, it will generally send off a sample to a USDA lab in Iowa for confirmation. If the farmer or hatchery owner wants a hearing on the accuracy of the test, again it’s up to APHIS’s discretion and is not by right.
THE RED ZONE
The way it works is that if a farm or hatchery’s flock tests positive for HPAI, all farms or hatcheries within a certain radius (usually ten kilometers), known as the “red zone,” are tested as well. If a bird purchased from a hatchery tests positive, then birds at the hatchery will be tested. One duckling hatchery owner said that APHIS wanted one hundred seventy-five birds tested at a time.
A farmer in one of the red zones said that once the farm is depopulated, it has to quarantine for sixty days minimum; at that point, the farm still needs approval to reopen—a process that could take several more months. It could take as many as seven to eight months for the replacement flock to start laying eggs.
For “backyard flocks,” staying in business during the time they are shut down is a big concern. APHIS provides compensation for the depopulated flock, but it is a fraction of what the flock is worth—often somewhere in the neighborhood of one-third to one-half the value. The farmers are paid a base sum for replacing the flock; there is no compensation for the genetics they had developed and lost in the culled flock.
It’s not any easier for hatcheries in a red zone. APHIS has ordered hatcheries to shut down for forty days because a farm customer had a non-negative test. Hatcheries moving birds off their premises have to test twenty-four and forty-eight hours ahead if they are located in a red zone. If they have to depopulate, it is likely well over a month before they can start up again, possibly much longer. The compensation APHIS provides for hatcheries that have culled is—like for farms—a fraction of the value.
The current red zone seems to be centered around the town of Narvonne in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where during the last four to five months, the USDA has culled the flocks on at least five farms.
A key to surviving a culling for small-scale farms is diversification and having revenue streams for the farm besides poultry; for a hatchery, it could be having two separate locations for housing birds. For sure, the existing regulatory framework for dealing with HPAI is a drain on resources: farmers and hatcheries culling billions of dollars’ worth of birds, APHIS spending billions of dollars compensating farmers and hatcheries for depopulating and state agencies spending extensive resources on inspection and testing.
With this expenditure of money, you would think that APHIS would have isolated the virus to get a better handle on the disease it was combating, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
As part of the April 2022 FOIA requests that WAPF sent to USDA-APHIS, it asked for all records—from January 1, 2022 through April 22, 2022—“in the possession, custody or control of APHIS describing the isolation of the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), directly taken from a diseased bird, where the bird’s sample was not first combined with any other source of genetic material (such as monkey kidney cells).”
In its response, APHIS provided more than sixteen hundred pages of documents—none of them describing how the virus was isolated. Instead, the documents comprise testing records with each test listing the sample, specimen type, the animal ID and species, as well as the type of test used, the strain ID and the virus type.
Estimates are that HPAI has cost the U.S. 10 percent of its laying flock. The USDA continues on with its test-and-cull strategy and what amounts to another attack on the food supply at a time when there are multiple attacks on food processing plants, toxic spills near productive agricultural land and, in Europe, confiscation of farms in the name of climate change. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and some of the other usual suspects are laboring to convince the public that transmission of HPAI to humans could be much more common than it had been, which is almost nonexistent to this point.
Surveillance, culling and biosecurity protocols aren’t ending the HPAI epidemic; it has been suggested that lower stocking density and improvements in nutrition and ventilation systems are areas where government and the poultry industry should be focusing their resources.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2023🖨️ Print post