Flu scrambles egg production


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The nation is in the midst of one of the deadliest avian-influenza outbreaks in recorded history, and Iowa is right at the center.

“This is one of, if not the largest, avian-influenza outbreak that we’ve ever seen,” said Dustin Vande Hoef, the communications director for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

The recent bird-flu epidemic, which so far has caused 14 million chickens to be “depopulated” by their farmers, is proving to have large-scale ramifications across the country.

Iowa is still the nation’s largest producer of eggs, out-producing its nearest competitors, Ohio and Indiana, by nearly 100 percent.

Jonathan Spurway, the vice president of marketing and optimization at Rembrandt Foods — one of the nation’s largest egg producers — calls the outbreak an “unprecedented event”; the average size of chicken flocks across the United States has dropped by 13 percent.

“We’ve never seen this level of bird mortality,” Spurway said.

He said there is a direct link between the avian-influenza outbreaks in Iowa and the drop in egg production that has occurred over the last few months.

Randy Olson, the executive director of the Iowa Poultry Association, agreed.

“There’s no question that the drop is due to the fact that we have fewer hens in Iowa,” he said.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 1.02 billion eggs were produced in Iowa in May, approximately 28.2 percent fewer than the 1.42 billion eggs that were produced in May 2014 and 21.5 percent fewer than the 1.3 billion that were produced in April, before the outbreak spread through the state.

Spurway said that of the nation’s 300 million hen population, 200 million are allocated for production of “shell eggs” — the kind consumers buy in cartons from their local supermarket — and the other 100 million are used to supply “product market” eggs to be used as ingredients in goods such as mayonnaise, pasta, and some salad dressings.

The majority of birds sickened came from the “product market” population, where more than 30 percent of hens were infected. Spurway said there doesn’t seem to be an explanation for this.

The drop in hen population and egg distribution have had a direct effect on the prices of products containing eggs, which Spurway said have risen by 200 percent in the last month.

He expects prices to peak in the near future and then begin to drop back to normal in the coming months.

Despite the state’s largest producers being afflicted by avian influenza, it appears farms closer to Iowa City remain uncontaminated.

“We, thankfully, didn’t lose any birds in our system,” said Ryan Miller, a co-owner of Farmer’s Hen House.

Farmer’s Henhouse is a cage-free, organic egg producer based near Kalona, 15 miles from Iowa City.

“If you look at Iowa, except for the one case in Winterset, everything was in the northwest quadrant of the state,” Miller said.

Miller and Vande Hoef agreed that the flu stems from the region’s exposure to wild bird migration, something that must be better controlled if farmers are to prevent another breakout in years to come.

“Producers have to focus on biosecurity, so wild birds don’t contaminate their flock by coming into contact with their hens or employees,” Vande Hoef said.

He expressed concern that a subsequent outbreak could occur in the fall as temperatures begin to cool down.

For now, producers are focusing on repopulating their flocks and bringing egg production back up to normal, a process that Spurway said could take anywhere from 18 to 24 months.

“There will no doubt be lessons learned from this outbreak,” Olson said. “We’re very encouraged by all these farmers and the diligence that they’ve shown during this difficult time.”

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