The highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5 epidemic spread to domestic poultry by migratory birds may have burned out without getting anywhere near the human food supply, which was said to be an extremely low possibility in the first place. No new detections of avian flu have occurred since June 17. Up until then, 223 detection reports by USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories led to the destruction of more than 48 million birds. The disease was spread by wild birds along the Mississippi, Pacific, and Central flyways. Iowa and Minnesota domestic producers were the hardest hit, with 180 of the 223 detections since last December found in those two states. No human cases of the HPAI H5 viruses have been detected in the United States, Canada, or internationally, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to view the risk to most people of HPAI H5 infections as “generally low.” In addition to commercial poultry and backyard flocks, wild birds in four states, including captive falcons, gyrfalcons, and horned owls, were found to be infected with the HPAI H5 virus. In addition to Iowa and Minnesota, where the epidemic was concentrated, the virus was also detected in domestic flocks in 13 other states in the West and Midwest. Earlier this week, Congress gave the poultry industry an opportunity to complain about USDA’s response to the worst avian flu outbreak in history. Still sore over the need to kill 48 million chickens and turkeys, some said that USDA moved too slowly in ending the outbreak. Brad Moline, testifying on behalf of the National Turkey Federation, told the Senate Agriculture Committee that “unclear communication contributed to the spread of this disease.” Moline lost 56,000 turkeys on his Iowa farm. Iowa egg producer Jim Dean, chairman of United Egg Producers, was a little easier in grading USDA, saying that no response is ever perfect. USDA has mounted a $500-million counter-offensive against the outbreak, with 3,400 staffers and contractors on the job in the impacted states. Work on a vaccine is underway. John Clifford, USDA’s chief veterinary officer, says the agency’s response is based on previous experience with other animal disease outbreaks. The hotter, longer days of summer may wear the epidemic out this summer, which will leave everyone waiting to see if it returns in the fall. In the meantime, eggs may be more expensive at the grocery store because production is down, but they remain safe to eat. Properly cooking eggs eliminates viruses and bacteria, including avian influenza. “The chance of infected poultry entering the food chain is extremely low,” according to USDA’s background report on food safety and avian influenza. “As part of the USDA highly pathogenic avian influenza response plan, infected birds to do not enter the food supply.” All poultry for human consumption is supposed to be inspected for signs of disease before and after slaughter, and USDA meat inspectors are assigned to every poultry plant.
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