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Prince Edward Island

Poultry producers face avian flu uncertainty

Alberta’s poultry industry is preparing for the worst and hoping for the best after first confronting bird flu last year.

“(2022) has been quite a year,” said David Hyink, chairman of Alberta Chicken Producers. “We have never had bird flu in the province before.

“For the first time, avian flu was a different species than we’ve ever seen before in the sense that it spreads really easily from wild birds to our populations.”

Data from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) shows that as of January 25, 60 farms in Alberta have been affected by bird flu. 14 are considered currently infected and 46 were previously infected.

Hyink said there is no way to predict what this year will bring and poultry producers are taking every precaution.

“Farmers are concerned. After last year they really don’t know what to expect this year but they are very alert.

“They take the situation seriously and continue to implement strict biosecurity, animal care and food safety measures in their barns.

“It’s a bit nerve-wracking though,” he added. “Last year it seemed to be happening in many different parts of the province and there didn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason other than wild birds being around.”

Hyink, who keeps about 135,000 chickens in his barns, has had no cases of bird flu and feels fortunate given how randomly the virus seems to be spreading.

Experts believe migratory birds were responsible for the series of outbreaks, which have affected flocks in nine out of 10 provinces. Only Prince Edward Island does not appear in the CFIA statistics.

A number of birds and waterfowl with avian influenza have been introduced at the Medicine River Wildlife Center near Spruce View.

A quarantine room has been set up. Although the center was unable to save infected birds from the deadly disease, three fox cubs were resuscitated, out of the five brought in after eating diseased bird carcasses.

In Alberta, just over half of the farms found to have the flu are commercial, with chicken numbers often in the tens of thousands. The rest are smaller, non-commercial poultry farms.

Those with smaller flocks of chickens are advised to keep the birds indoors when migratory birds return to reduce the risk of transmission.

The CFIA notes that the highly pathogenic avian influenza that is causing the problems is not a food safety concern. There is no evidence that it can be transmitted to humans by eating cooked poultry or eggs.

CFIA works closely with farmers when cases are discovered. The entire herd of a farm, and sometimes that of a nearby farm, must be humanely destroyed to ensure the disease does not spread.

To date, 1.4 million birds have been culled in Alberta. Only BC, where 3.6 million birds had to be killed, was hardest hit. To date, 7.1 million birds have been culled across Canada.

“It had a really significant impact on all infected farmers,” Hyink said.

Funds are available through CFIA to compensate farmers who have lost their herds. But not all costs are covered, he said.

Hyink credited the province for helping eligible growers recoup some of those costs through programs like AgriStability.

On Wednesday, the state and federal governments announced that the deadline to participate in the 2022 AgriStability program had been extended to the end of the month.

“In response to the 2022 avian flu outbreak, the governments of Canada and Alberta have agreed to allow deferred participation in AgriStability for the 2022 program year,” Alberta Agriculture and Irrigation Minister Nate Horner said in a statement.

Growers who have not enrolled in the program can enroll now through February 28 through Agriculture Financial Services Corporation. AgriStability is designed to help poultry producers manage severe downturns in sales.

“Alberta growers are dealing with significant impact, significant losses and a lot of stress during this time and as such we are providing additional assistance to some growers,” said Horner.

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