A strain of avian flu harmless to humans has been found at a Foster Farms turkey facility in Stanislaus County. The company’s website says the firm’s early-detection program caught the outbreak in a single, rural turkey ranch, which has been quarantined and the birds are to be humanely killed.
Federal agriculture officials said the strain detected is H5N8, which is not known to harm humans. The similarly named bird flu strain H5N1 ravaged poultry across Asia in 2003 and is more easily spread among humans. Testing occurred after the flock experienced a spike in deaths.
“The good news is it isn’t a human issue, but it is an industry issue because it can wipe out the flock fairly quickly,” said Bill Mattos, president of the Modesto-based California Poultry Federation. Mattos estimated the area-wide toll from an outbreak could affect up to 200,000 birds.
“We’ve been watching for this since those cases in British Columbia, Canada, a few weeks back,” Mattos said. As wild birds migrate along the Pacific Flyway, they bring the deadly disease with them, spreading it where they land or where droppings fall. He urged those with small backyard blocks to keep their birds in coops this winter. Infected birds will die quickly, he said.
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In mid-December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported finding the same strain in guinea fowl and chickens from a 100-bird backyard poultry flock in Winston, Ore. Foster Farms said it reported the outbreak to the USDA. It may be the first U.S. commercial outbreak.
The Foster Farms statement says: “According to USDA policy, the ranch was quarantined and will be humanely depopulated by the USDA and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to prevent introduction to migratory and commercial flocks. No poultry products in the marketplace are impacted.”
According to the website, Foster Farms increased bio-security measures at all its West Coast facilities as soon as the other incidents were seen, working with agricultural and veterinary leaders on prevention measures.
“To further protect the health of its poultry and ensure the safety of its products, Foster Farms has long employed strict and industry-leading biosecurity practices including isolation of poultry farms, traffic control and sanitation. The company has maintained a continuous testing program for avian influenza since 2000. Foster Farms is committed to providing premium quality poultry products that are healthy, delicious and safe,” the statement concludes.
“This company has a very sophisticated process in place to handle this,” Mattos said. “It’s one ranch. It’s been locked down with just the one employee there. We’re just trying to keep it encapsulated.”
The outbreak may cause further export problems, however. China stopped importing American poultry products as soon as the outbreak surfaced. Mattos said Stanislaus County farms export only about 1 percent of their poultry, but nationwide some 30 percent of the flocks are sent abroad.
The Bee’s John Holland and The Associated Press contributed to this story.