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Bird Flu Outbreak: Experts Say No Need to Panic About Egg, Dairy Prices or Production in Texas

By Toluwani Osibamowo

Avian influenza or bird flu outbreaks now have the poultry industry, the dairy industry and consumers on high alert.

Over the past two weeks, one of the country’s largest egg producers killed nearly two million chickens at its plant in the Texas Panhandle after the flock tested positive for bird flu; cows in six states have now caught the virus for what appears to be the first time ever; and a person has tested positive for the disease.

But Texas agriculture experts say there’s no need to worry about widespread infections or soaring egg prices that have hit the U.S. poultry industry before.

“This is not going to be a problem,” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said in an interview with KERA News. “The eggs are safe, milk's safe. There's not going to be a spike in the prices of eggs or milk. To my farmers and ranchers, you know, we'll get through this.”

Cal-Maine Foods being forced to kill approximately 1.6 million laying hens and 337,000 pullets is indeed a big deal, Miller said. But that was only 3.6% of Cal-Maine’s poultry supply, according to a press release — and Miller said it’s probably an even smaller percentage of the entire country’s poultry population.

Cal-Maine said none of those eggs has reached the market and the plant has paused production.

Even one bird that tests positive can endanger the entire flock. Miller said he doesn’t know exactly how the Cal-Maine chickens were killed, but the company would be required to follow U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines for depopulation, which recommend that euthanizing poultry should be done “as safely, quickly, efficiently, and humanely as possible.”

Domesticated birds like chickens, turkeys and ducks may contract bird flu through infected waterfowl or other infected poultry, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But once the migratory season ends for wild birds soon, bird flu will hopefully spread less.

“We'll be out of the woods,” Miller said. “We won't have to worry about this until next year. That'll give us, you know, basically 10 or 12 months to research this and figure out what happened. And hopefully by then, we'll be able to prevent it.”

A human identified by the state Department of Agriculture as a dairy worker also tested positive for bird flu earlier this week, Texas health officials reported. His only symptom so far was pink eye, which Miller said the man got over fairly quickly.

It's rare that bird flu spreads to humans and the health risk is low, according to the CDC. Miller said even if there were a bird flu outbreak in humans, the CDC has vaccines on hand that can be administered.

Seeing cows test positive for bird flu is likely a nationwide first, however. USDA officials have suggested it has been spread via milk droplets on dairy workers’ clothing and tools.

Bird flu symptoms in infected cows include fever, thick discolored milk and a 10- to 30-pound drop in milk production per cow, according to a Texas Department of Agriculture news release last week.

There are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to bird flu in cattle, but so far infections have been confined to older, lactating cattle — which Miller said is puzzling because they usually have stronger immune systems. But he said cow herds likely won’t have to be euthanized.

“The only thing I would caution is, you know, I would lay off the raw milk and unpasteurized dairy products, maybe, until we figure out what we're dealing with,” he said.

David Anderson, professor and extension economist with Texas A&M AgriLife, speculated the flu may have been spread when infected birds got into cows’ feed.

In addition to pasteurization, Anderson said there are multiple steps in the dairy production process that prevents diseased products from ever entering the food chain. Any infected cows are milked in a separate pen and the infected milk is dumped out. Every batch of milk is tested for disease.

“I don't anticipate much in the way of, say, milk price changes because of this,” he said. “There's not a lot of cases to date. We have plenty of milk. In fact, dairy farmers have been struggling with very low prices because of how much milk there is.”

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