Avian flu continues to threaten poultry farms, leading to higher prices

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch

While the buzz surrounding avian flu faded since this summer, poultry experts warn that the virus is still a concern — with new cases being reported this fall.

Since February, millions of chickens and turkeys have been slaughtered in an attempt to mitigate the spread of the highly contagious outbreak. When the virus is found on farms, officials recommend entire flocks be killed.

As of Monday, there have been 25 affected commercial flocks, 9 affected backyard flocks and more than 4.3 million birds affected in this outbreak. The latest flock, confirmed Nov. 3, came from a Lehigh County commercial turkey flock with 28,500 birds affected, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

What does this mean for local farmers in York County?

Notably, changes in the supply chain that could affect this holiday season's favorite meals, according to John Boney, assistant professor of poultry science in the College of Agricultural Sciences and leader of Penn State Extension’s poultry team.

Volunteer Preston Shoff, of Springettsbury Township, handles frozen turkeys as Thanksgiving meals are loaded into cars to be delivered to families in the community during day two of Catholic Harvest’s York Giving at York State Fairgrounds in West Manchester Township, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022.  Dawn J. Sagert photo

"There may be some stress in the marketplace, but I think those products are still available," Boney said. "And any time that demand is stressed at all, you may see an increase in prices."

Aside from the avian flu outbreak, local poultry farmers are suffering as a result of the cost of goods. The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, for instance, affects the cost of feed and grains with Ukraine being a big supplier of ingredients used in animal feed, Boney added.

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Wholesale turkey prices are at record highs after a difficult year for U.S. flocks. A particularly deadly strain of avian flu — first reported in February on an Indiana turkey farm — has wiped out 49 million turkeys and other poultry in 46 states this year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

As a result, U.S. turkey supplies per capita are at their lowest level since 1986, said Mark Jordan, the executive director of Jonesboro, Arkansas-based Leap Market Analytics. Jordan predicts the wholesale price of a frozen, 8-16 pound turkey hen — the type typically purchased for Thanksgiving — will hit $1.77 per pound in November, up 28% from the same month last year.

File - Frozen turkeys are displayed at a supermarket in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021. Americans are bracing for a costly Thanksgiving this year, with double-digit percent increases in the price of turkey, potatoes, stuffing, canned pumpkin and other staples.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Avian flu also pushed egg prices into record territory, Anderson said. In the second week of November, a dozen Grade A eggs were selling for an average of $2.28, more than double the price from the prior year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Egg prices would have been higher even without the flu, Anderson said, because of the rising cost of the corn and soybean meal used for chicken feed. Ukraine is normally a major exporter of corn, and the loss of that supply has caused global prices to soar.

There is some relief for farmers, however.

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Despite flocks getting wiped out, farmers can be compensated for the value of their poultry by the United States Department of Agriculture, Boney said.

Additionally, experts are hoping that with the end of the annual waterfowl migration soon, it will quell the disease.

Here With Us Farm Sanctuary, located at 3397 Tunnel Hill Road, is a nonprofit that rescues neglected or abused farm animals. Photo credit by Amanda Clark.

"I've been watching the supermarkets, at least here in central Pennsylvania, and there appears to be plenty of turkeys available — I haven't seen any shortage," Boney added. "I think that there is going to be a bird available for those that want it now, but it may come at a little bit higher price."

Even while some turkey might be more expensive this year, consumers should be aware grocery stores are continuing to offer rewards and special discounts — all good signs that the supply chain remains strong, said Alex Baloga, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association.

"Look at where you shop," Baloga said. "A lot of times retailers are offering holiday discounts, Thanksgiving discounts and rewards programs."

No matter what type of poultry York County residents choose to purchase this holiday season, Boney emphasized one key point: the avian flu is not a food safety concern.

"These animals that are impacted by highly pathogenic avian influenza are not sent to the grocery store," Boney said. So even if they were asymptomatic for some reason, they're being tested."

In the rare event that a poultry product infected with avian flu entered the supply chain, any potential disease would be eliminated by cooking the animal to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.