An ‘unprecedented’ bird flu outbreak has made the cost of living crisis even worse according to experts who warn that the number of poultry culled has almost doubled since last season.
According to figures from the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH), over 22 million cases have been reported in wild birds and poultry so far this season in 68 countries.
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The information was shared exclusively with the Telegraph who also report that the figure is double the 11m recorded between October 2020 and September 2021, which itself was an all-time high.
Of course this couldn’t possibly have been expected or planned even….
The Telegraph reports: In an effort to curb the outbreak, 94.2m farmed poultry have been killed and disposed of, compared to 54.4m last season. Before 2020, the number of birds culled to stem the spread of avian flu worldwide has only topped 15m twice.
Experts say the surge – which comes amid a cost of living crisis and mounting food insecurity, triggered by war in Ukraine and extreme weather – has further disrupted supply chains, contributing to higher prices.
“This is a devastating situation from a market and supply perspective,” said Kathleen Liang, director of the Centre for Environmental Farming Systems in North Carolina.
“Remember that the chicken comes with the egg… the cost of both has definitely gone up due to bird flu, compounded by inflation and import/export challenges,” she added. “Bird flu is one of a combination of factors that is driving food insecurity.”
In the UK, which has also been hit by an “unprecedented” bird flu season, some restrictions to protect poultry and captive birds were lifted in May, but an Avian Influenza Prevention Zone remains in place – meaning bird keepers have to follow strict biosecurity measures.
Professor Munir Iqbal, head of the Avian Influenza Virus group at the Pirbright Institute in Surrey, told the Telegraph that the risk to agriculture remains high due to ongoing spread in wild populations.
‘Constant threat’ for farmers
For example, at least 3,000 birds have died in the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumbria, according to the National Trust, in the worst disaster to hit its colonies in nearly 100 years. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government Agency NatureScot has advised 23 islands to halt visitors in a bid to limit the spread of bird flu.
“Farmers are in constant threat from a disease outbreak at any time,” said Prof Iqbal. “Even during the summer months, outbreaks with H5N1 [bird flu] are being reported… [which means] that the virus is prevailing in wild birds and being disseminated to poultry.”
“The cost of production is increasing due to both disease outbreaks and feed prices, [which affects] the livelihood of farmers as well as affordability for customers,” he added. “The price of both poultry meat and eggs has significantly increased in the UK and other countries.”
Prof Iqbal said the issue is unlikely to dissipate quickly, and there are mounting fears about what the next flu season could look like.
“[This has been an] unprecedented season for the level of avian flu infection,” Dr Christine Middlemiss, the UK’s chief veterinary officer, told BBC Radio Four on Tuesday. “We are really concerned about what the next autumn winter season will bring when the migrating birds return again.”
A Defra spokesperson added: “To date, 2.75 million birds have been culled in the UK, a small proportion of the 20 million birds produced each week by the poultry industry. The UK is experiencing its largest ever outbreak of bird flu, and our teams are working around-the-clock to support poultry keepers impacted by this terrible disease.”
‘These issues are not going away’
Grady Ferguson, a senior research analyst at the data consultancy Gro Intelligence, said that while new cases have tapered off, the losses “will continue to impact its industry, potentially for years, as did the US’ 2014-15 losses of 50m birds”.
“That was the worst animal health disaster in US history,” he said. “This year, the US has so far lost 40 million. More losses may begin in the fall as migratory birds – a major suspected [bird flu] spreader – head south for the winter.”
It is not clear what has driven the current surge, but experts say the scale of the rise means it is unlikely to reflect better surveillance – especially in poultry, where disease has always been closely tracked.
Instead, factors including a more transmissible strain, shifting migration patterns, rising contact between free range poultry and wild birds, climate change or an unexpected “influenza epizootic” have all been discussed.
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