This week is the most important to the turkey producers of America, when many will enjoy a Thanksgiving meal with family and friends dining on turkey and all the accoutrements routinely accompanying the holiday meal.

If the recent avian influenza outbreak took a toll on American’s pocketbooks, we would expect the price of turkeys to have escalated.  However, as recently reported by James B. Stewart in the NY Times on November 20, 2015, despite the recent outbreak of avian influenza affecting “affecting 15 states, attacking chickens, ducks, and turkeys” resulting in the death of 48 million birds, including 7.5 million turkeys, turkeys for Thanksgiving dinner are readily available and even less expensive than last year.

This result is thanks, in large part, to the response from state departments of agriculture with the assistance of the USDA.  The rapid identification and depopulation of infected flocks enabled the repopulation of farms once cleaning and disinfection protocols were implemented and the premises approved for such use.

In the fall USDA published its Fall 2015 HPAI Preparedness and Response Plan in anticipation of the re-introduction of the virus during the influenza season of 2015-2016, finding:

Since it was first identified in the United States in December 2014 in the Pacific Northwest, highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) has been detected in commercial and backyard poultry flocks, wild birds, or captive wild birds in 21 States. With the last case of the spring outbreak identified in June, 2015, a total of 211 commercial and 21 backyard poultry premises had been affected. This resulted in the depopulation of 7.5 million turkeys and 42.1 million egg-layer and pullet chickens, with devastating effects on these businesses, and a cost to Federal taxpayers of over $950 million.

USDA’s plans for the upcoming season include:

  • Promoting improved on-farm biosecurity practices in order to prevent future HPAI cases to the greatest extent possible;

  • Improving HPAI surveillance in wild birds as a means to provide “early warning” risk information to States and industry;

  • Expanding Federal, State and industry response capabilities, including availability of personnel, equipment, and depopulation, disposal and recovery options;

  • Improving our capabilities to rapidly detect HPAI in domestic poultry and to depopulate affected flocks within 24 hours to reduce the environmental load of HPAI viruses and their subsequent spread;

  • Streamlining the processes for payment of indemnity and the cost of eliminating viruses so that producers receive a fair amount quickly, to assist them in returning to production;

  • Enhancing our ability to communicate in a timely and effective way with producers, consumers, legislators, media, and others regarding outbreaks and other information; and

  • Making preparations to identify and deploy effective AI vaccines should they be a cost beneficial addition to the eradication efforts in a future HPAI outbreak.

Many states and the federal government have plans to respond to foreign animal diseases and highly contagious diseases, including HPAI.

In New Jersey, the plan was initially developed during my tenure as the Director, Division of Animal Health, Department of Agriculture (the State Veterinarian). In addition to emergency plans that became part of the State’s Office of Emergency Management, a regulation specifically dedicated to Avian Influenza was proposed and adopted, N.J.A.C. 2:9.

During the rule-making process, the importance of the virus was described:

Why is AI considered a serious disease?

In some instances, strains of HPAI viruses can be infectious to people. Since mid–December 2003, a growing number of Asian countries have reported outbreaks of HPAI in chickens and ducks. The rapid spread of HPAI is historically unprecedented and of growing concern for human health as well as for animal health. Of great concern to the World Health Organization is the possibility that the current HPAI strains could acquire human influenza genes giving rise to human–to–human transmission and possibly another influenza pandemic in people. In addition, an outbreak of HPAI in the United States could potentially cost the U.S. poultry industry millions of dollars in losses. The 1983–84 HPAI outbreak in the Northeast United States cost nearly $65 million, and led to the destruction of 17 million birds.

In New Jersey, poultry production includes commercial chicken, turkey, guinea fowl and other flocks; backyard flocks; water fowl and game birds; and live bird markets (where customers select birds that are then slaughtered on site).

Plans to respond to disease outbreaks are critical for each of these sectors of the industry.

Importantly, for the first time, USDA has actively pursued and prepared for the use of vaccines to minimize the impact of an avian influenza outbreak in 2015-2016.  Such use can have significant impacts on international exports.

For now, enjoy your Thanksgiving meal and celebration with family and friends.