Alaska flocks have not yet been stricken by the largest avian influenza outbreak to hit the poultry industry in history.
The risk, however, is still there for infection on a local scale.
“Biosecurity measures in Alaska can reduce the risk of spreading highly pathogenic avian influenza found in the Lower 48 and Canada to farms in Alaska,” said Alaska State Veterinarian Robert Gerlach. “The active surveillance in Alaska has not identified any outbreaks in domestic or wild birds so far.”
Hardest hit are layers, which produce market eggs; the industry lost 10 percent of the entire U.S. flock, Gerlach said. The U.S. turkey flock lost 7 to 8 percent, and 6 percent losses hit the flock of pullets, which are the chickens bred to replace the actively laying hens, but still too young to produce, he said.
The main three strains, H5N8, H5N2 and H5N1, are not considered threats to human health, and can be inactivated by cooking poultry to 165 degrees, according to a Division of Environmental Health release in the Alaska Division of Agriculture’s June newsletter.
So far nearly 50 million laying hens, turkeys and pullets have either succumbed to the disease or were slaughtered to prevent further transmission, Gerlach said.
Alaska flocks are at risk because wild birds that have contracted the flu from within Canada or the Lower 48 can spread the diseases, Gerlach said. With large events such as the Alaska State Fair or the Kenai Peninsula Fair coming up at the end of the summer, poultry farmers should be careful to keep their animals clean and aware of any potential health concerns, he said.
The Kenai Peninsula will not experience a loss so massive simply because there are no local large-scale-operations, said Amy Seitz, executive director for the Kenai branch of the Alaska Farm Bureau.
However, if an infected wild bird lands in a “backyard flock,” the small operations most common on the Kenai Peninsula, it has the potential to wipe out the entire stock, Seitz said.
The practice of raising poultry is rising in popularity, Seitz said. More producers have enough laying hens to sell off their extra eggs through word of mouth and at local farmers markets, she said.
Because of how avian influenza is spread, through the intermixing of domestic and wild birds, there is concern for the future of local flocks, Seitz said.
At this time, extra biosecurity precautions are extremely necessary, Gerlach said.
The Office of the State Veterinarian has issued a few quarantines throughout the state on flocks that had suspected outbreaks or exposure to infected birds, but the quarantines were released when tests for avian influenza were negative, Gerlach said.
If any birds have a suspected illness, call a veterinarian, seek a diagnosis immediately and separate the animal from others, Gerlach said.
Don’t leave feed out that could attract wild birds and wildlife, clean and sanitize equipment and keep an eye on domestic birds to prevent them from intermixing with wild birds.
Sterling’s End of The Road Farm owner Tricey Katzenburger said she is not too concerned for her 40 laying hens at this point. She started raising chickens and goats two years ago to feed her family better, and now sells between 9 and 12 dozen eggs weekly, mostly through word of mouth.
Katzenburger said the biggest health threat to her chickens is lice, which is easily treatable with antibiotics. She turns to other local farmers and organizations such as the Kenai Local Food Connection when looking for resources on safe practices.
The Alaska Division of Environmental Health Office of the State Veterinarian responds to questions from producers regarding sick birds and biosecurity issues, and can help local operations that may have concerns of infection among their birds, Gerlach said.
The division can also help educate producers on safe management of flocks, he said.
The Cooperative Extension Service, which has a branch in Soldotna, also is a good resource for catching up on safety procedures, Gerlach said.
“The bottom line is that this is a complicated problem,” Gerlach said. “If it were easy the outbreak would have been controlled right away.”
The massive loss of laying hens in Lower 48 poultry operations has resulted in higher egg prices in many retail outlets. In some cases egg bills have doubled in less than a month.
The price of chicken meat products hasn’t gone up much because less than 1 percent of the U.S. population of broiler flocks used to produce whole chickens and chicken parts has been affected by the outbreak, Gerlach said.
Laying hens are usually used only for that purpose and are too old to eat by the time they are slaughtered, explained Seitz.
Kelly Sullivan is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.