WATERLOO — Ontario poultry farms have been hammered by the worst outbreak of the Avian influenza virus ever seen in Canada, with flocks infected in nine provinces and 1.725 million birds destroyed as of May 5.
That toll includes 425,000 birds culled in Ontario under the watch of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
The CFIA has counted bird flu (H5N1 virus) outbreaks at 23 Ontario flocks, from late March to May 5. The outbreaks comprise not only commercial chicken meat producers but also farmers producing eggs, turkeys and ducks. Four sites involve small flocks.
There are 1,200 chicken meat producers, 430 egg producers and 160 turkey farms in Ontario.
In a glimmer of good news, Chicken Farmers of Canada spokesperson Lisa Bishop-Spencer said the rate of increase at least appears to be slowing. “We are seeing a lesser frequency of cases, but it’s still very much a concern among producers,” she emphasized, noting that migrating waterfowl — carriers of the disease — continue to arrive in Ontario. There is hope the virus will “fade away” soon as wild birds move farther north, as has happened during past, smaller outbreaks. Newfoundland and Nova Scotia have not seen a new outbreak since the first quarter of 2022.
In the meantime, the threat posed by the virus — and the damage done — remains a major stressor to Ontario poultry farmers, Bishop-Spencer acknowledged. “These are unprecedented times for the industry.”
Comparing the disease to sustaining a barn fire, she said, “It’s very upsetting to have this come onto your farm.”
Provincial poultry boards have been fielding a high volume of incoming calls from member producers and they are all asking, “What do I do?”
All are closely monitoring their flocks with the instruction to call a vet at the first sign of anything that looks suspicious and all are anxious that their farm won’t be next with an outbreak. Those with confirmed positive cases must watch as the CFIA moves in to ensure their flocks are destroyed.
The heartbreaking process includes destroying a flock by filling a barn with carbon dioxide.
According to Bishop-Spencer, the carcasses are composted inside the barn, and the CFIA checks to ensure the decomposing bird bodies reach a certain temperature — killing the pathogen — before they are cleaned out of the structure. Chesley-area turkey farmer, and member of the Feather Board Command Centre, Ingrid deVisser said it could be a number of months before an infected barn can be brought back into production.
The current disease challenge coincides with rebounding demand for chicken meat, back to levels prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. For consumers, the avian flu situation is not bad enough to mpact supply or prices in grocery stores. Bishop-Spencer pointed out that the supply-managed production of chicken has helped ensure a producer presence across the country. With production more spread out than in the United States, lesser-hit regions could be called upon to supply product to areas where there might be a shortfall. This last occurred during a 2004 avian flu outbreak in B.C., she said, when the Chicken Farmers of Canada hatched a “chicken west” effort to keep that province supplied.
The Toronto Star has reported that King Cole Ducks of York Region slaughtered 100,000 of its birds after a recent outbreak. A company official is reported as saying that 80 % of the Canadian duck supply has been affected by avian flu.
The contagious sickness is a concern both for its impact on the poultry sector and, according to Public Health Canada, the potential to spark the next human flu pandemic — although transmission from birds to people is considered rare. Human H5N1 infections “have been associated with severe disease and death,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Ontario’s health ministry recommends that individuals living or working on farms monitor themselves for symptoms.
North America’s only case in a human was recorded late last month in Colorado. The infected man, a prison inmate, contracted the infection while on work release during a chicken cull at an infected farm. The under-age-40 inmate was reported to have fatigue but was otherwise asymptomatic and is expected to fully recover.
Ontario’s agricultural commodity insurer, Agricorp, says it’s ready to deliver support to poultry producers that sign up for coverage. Spokesperson Stephanie Charest pointed out that the deadline for 2022 AgriStability applications and fees was recently extended to June 30. The program was recently tweaked to increase loss coverage from 70 % to 80 % and trigger payment more easily with the removal of a reference margin limit.
Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs spokesperson Belinda Sutton also noted that private insurance is available through the Poultry Insurance Reciprocal of Canada.