Avian Flu Devastates Farms in California's 'Egg Basket' as Rolled Poultry Industry Outbreaks – Health

PETALUMA, Calif. — Last month, Mike Weber got the news every poultry farmer dreads: His chickens tested positive for avian flu.

Following government regulations, Weber's company, Sunrise Farms, had to cull its entire flock of laying hens — 550,000 birds — to prevent the disease from spreading to other farms in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco.

“It's a trauma. We're all going through grief because of that,” Weber said, standing in the empty chicken coop. “Petaluma is known as the egg basket of the world. It's devastating to see that egg basket go up in flames.”

A year after bird flu led to record egg prices and massive shortages, the disease known as highly pathogenic avian influenza is wreaking havoc in California, which escaped an earlier wave of outbreaks that devastated poultry farms in the Midwest.

The highly contagious virus has ravaged Sonoma County, where officials have declared a state of emergency. In the past two months, nearly a dozen commercial farms have had to destroy more than 1 million birds to control the outbreak, causing economic damage to farmers, workers and their customers.

Merced County in central California has also been hit hard, with outbreaks at several large commercial egg farms in recent weeks.

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Bird flu is spread by ducks, geese and other migratory birds, experts say. Waterfowl can carry the virus without becoming sick and can easily spread through droppings and nasal secretions to chicken and turkey farms and backyard flocks.

Poultry farms in California are implementing strict biosecurity measures to prevent the spread of disease. State Veterinarian Annette Jones urged farmers to keep their flocks indoors until June, which includes outdoor access to organic chickens.

“We still have months of immigration going on. So we have to be as careful as possible to protect our birds,” said Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation.

The loss of local chickens sent egg prices soaring in the San Francisco Bay Area ahead of the holidays before supermarkets and restaurants sought suppliers from outside the region.

Although bird flu has been around for decades, the current outbreak of the virus, which began in early 2022, has prompted the slaughter of about 82 million birds, mostly egg-laying chickens, in 47 US states, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Whenever the disease is found, entire flocks are slaughtered to help limit the spread of the virus.

The price of a dozen eggs more than doubled in January 2023 to a peak of $4.82. Egg prices returned to their normal range as egg producers built up their flocks and controlled the outbreak. Turkey and chicken prices are also up, partly due to the virus.

Climate change is increasing the risk of outbreaks because changing weather patterns are disrupting the migratory patterns of wild birds, Pietsky said. For example, exceptional rainfall last year created new waterfowl habitat across California, including in areas near poultry farms.

In California, the outbreak has affected more than 7 million chickens in about 40 commercial flocks and 24 backyard flocks, with most outbreaks in the North Coast and Central Valley over the past two months, according to the USDA.

Industry officials are concerned about the growing number of backyard chickens that could become infected and spread avian flu to commercial farms.

“We have wild birds that are full of viruses. And if you expose your birds to these wild birds, they can become infected and sick,” said Rodrigo Gallardo, a UC Davis researcher who studies avian influenza.

Gallardo advises backyard chicken owners to wear clean clothes and shoes to protect their flock from becoming infected. If an unusual number of chickens die, they should be tested for avian flu.

Itamari Peterson, a retired teacher in Petaluma, has a flock of about 50 chickens that produce eggs that she sells from her backyard for 50 cents each.

“I'm very concerned because this avian flu is transmitted by wild birds, and there's no way I can prevent wild birds from coming in and leaving the disease behind,” Peterson said. “If you have an incident in your flock, you have to destroy the whole flock.”

Sunrise Farms, which Weber's grandparents started more than a century ago, was infected despite strict biosecurity measures in place to protect the herd.

“The virus was so bad for the birds and you moved in so quickly and the birds died,” Weber said. “Heartbreak doesn't describe how you feel when you walk in and see perfectly healthy young birds that have been laid.”

After euthanizing more than half a million chickens at Sunrise Farms, Weber and his staff spent the Christmas holiday disposing of the carcasses. Since then, they have been cleaning and disinfecting the chicken houses.

Weber expects the farm to get approval from federal regulators to put chicks back on the farm this spring. It will then take another five months for the hens to be mature enough to lay eggs.

He feels lucky that the two farms his company co-owns have not been infected and are still producing eggs for his customers. But recovering from the outbreak won't be easy.

“We have a long road ahead of us,” Weber said. “We're going to give it one more run and try to keep the families of these employees together because they've worked so hard to make it into the company.”

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