USDA calls on poultry owners to ‘defend flock’

The USDA has started a campaign to remind poultry farmers to safeguard their flocks from infectious and fatal diseases.

Bird flu and virulent Newcastle disease are particularly worrisome. Bird flu continues to surface in the U.S., though not with the ferocity of the 2015 calamity.

Virulent Newcastle disease, similarly contiguous and deadly, has been found 176 times since May in Southern California, almost entirely in what the USDA calls “backyard exhibition chickens.”

The USDA’s new initiative, dubbed “Defend the Flock,” resembles two earlier campaigns to promote biosecurity, but has been broadened to apply to commercial and backyard poultry.

Foreign countries do not take lightly infectious diseases in non-commercial flocks. The U.S. poultry industry was quickly prohibited from many countries in late 2014 when a small backyard flock in Southern Oregon came down with highly pathogenic bird flu.

“While each of the previous campaigns were successful, by combining them and emphasizing shared responsibility, USDA will improve its ability to promote biosecurity and protect avian health across the country,” USDA Chief Veterinary Officer Jack Shere said in a written statement.

Highly pathogenic bird flu claimed more than 50 million chickens and turkeys in the U.S. in 2015. The disease killed few, but contaminated flocks were euthanized. The USDA reported that revenue from U.S. poultry exports declined by $1.3 billion from the year before.

The outbreak started in the Pacific Flyway, the migratory route over Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California. The virus appeared in late 2014 in commercial poultry farms in British Columbia and then in a wild duck in Washington and then that backyard flock in Southern Oregon.

From there, bird flu hit commercial poultry barns in California and the Midwest. The panzootic, the animal equivalent of a pandemic, erupted into what the USDA called the worst animal-health disaster in U.S. history.

Migratory waterfowl spread the disease in their feces, making poultry kept outdoors particularly exposed. The outbreak was so devastating, however, because the virus got into barns holding tens of thousands of birds.

The virus clings to clothes and equipment and can be spread from barn to barn by workers, according to a report prepared for lawmakers by the Congressional Research Service. The report, citing USDA findings, said the virus also may have been moved about by rodents and small birds, and even the wind.

Low pathogenic bird flu, less contagious but just as fatal to flocks, most recently appeared in the U.S. in October in commercial turkey barns about 60 miles apart in Minnesota.

Globally, highly pathogenic bird flu has appeared in 68 countries and killed nearly 122.6 million birds since 2013, according to the World Organization for Animal Health. New outbreaks continue to be reported in Asia and Europe.

Virulent Newcastle disease, formerly known as exotic Newcastle disease, affects the respiratory, nervous and digestive systems of poultry. “Virulent” is part of the disease’s name, and the word is apt, according to the USA. The disease strikes so quickly that many birds die without showing any signs of being sick.

USDA posts information online about safeguarding flocks at www.aphis.usda.gov/animalhealth/defendtheflock.