Canadian poultry farmers face fear and pressure as a highly pathogenic strain of H5N1 avian influenza is currently circulating in both wild and domestic flocks across North America.
According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, poultry and egg producers in Canada have lost more than 1.7 million birds to bird flu since late 2021. This number includes both birds that have died from the virus and birds that have been euthanized.
David Hynek, a chicken farmer in Alberta, checks his coops every day with a sense of trepidation. He knows if the disease will appear on his property, it means the loss of his entire flock.
Avian influenza has a high mortality rate, and those birds in outbreak sites that do not die from the disease are humanely killed to prevent the spread of the virus.
“While we didn’t have it on our farm, and I hope we don’t, it looks like it could be anyone,” Hyink said. “It might be us then, the farm next door to us, you just don’t know.
Alberta is the hardest-hit province in Canada, with 900,000 birds killed and 23 farms damaged. Ontario is the second hardest-hit area with 23 farms affected and 425,000 birds dead.
The virus outbreak has now appeared in every county except Prince Edward Island. Across the country, farmers are being encouraged to keep birds indoors, visitors are restricted, and biosecurity measures are ramping up to help stop the spread of the disease.
The virus can spread between birds through direct contact, but it also spreads easily from wild bird droppings and can be transmitted to commercial flocks on workers’ feet or on equipment.
While bird flu was first detected in Canada in 2004, this year’s strain — which has also been wreaking havoc in Europe and Asia — is “unprecedented” in terms of its global impact, according to CFIA.
The new breed is highly transmissible and appears to maintain itself among wild bird groups. While there is some hope that the number of cases may drop when the spring bird migration ends in June, for now, farmers are left wondering where and when the next outbreak will occur.
“You just don’t know, and you do your best,” Heinek said.
While farmers who have lost flocks to bird flu are eligible for government compensation, the disease continues to cause significant disruption to the industry, said Jean-Michel Lorraine, chief executive of the Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council.
Laurin said consumers were not affected by any shortages, as the Canadian supply chain as a whole for eggs and poultry is still holding up well. Part of the reason for this, he said, is that unlike in the United States — where industrial-sized sheds are more common, which means an outbreak on a property can consume a huge amount of supplies — Canadian chicken coops tend to be smaller, Family run operations.
Health officials say that while bird flu can sometimes cause illness in humans, it is rare and may be the result of close contact with infected birds or highly polluted environments.
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