The largest-ever U.S. outbreak of bird flu, which has devastated Midwestern poultry and egg producers in recent weeks, will be felt at Thanksgiving tables across the nation come November, say farmers.
The high contagious H5N2 strain has already spread to 14 states and led to the destruction of more than 21 million birds. Included in this figure are 3.3 million turkeys in Minnesota, the nation’s top turkey producer.
With Thanksgiving just seven months away, farmers say they may be running out of time to raise enough turkeys to meet demand.
Once a farm gets infected, flocks must be culled, composted in barns, then disposed of. Buildings are then be thoroughly disinfected. The lengthy process can take up to three months to complete.
After chicks are re-introduced to the barns it takes about four months to produce a full-sized hen of the type most Americans prefer for their holiday feasts.
The problem has been compounded because breeder farms that supply the young birds have also been infected making acquiring the chicks very challenging.
There’s still no sign of the outbreak letting up, despite tight biosecurity measures and widespread quarantines. At least one turkey processing plant has cut back on workers’ shifts because of a lack of birds to slaughter.
Of the nearly 240 million turkeys raised last year, nearly one in five came from Minnesota farms. About 30 per cent of the Minnesota birds are sold as whole turkeys at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The remaining 70 per cent are sold year-round for deli meat, frozen meals, ground turkey and other products, according to industry data.