today is May 24, 2022

This is the first time Alberta has been hit with avian influenza. An outbreak in 2004 in British Columbia devastated chicken farmers. Maria Leslie/Handout

With a confirmed positive case of avian influenza on a British Columbian farm in the North Okanagan region, and eight in Alberta, poultry farmers in Western Canada are under significant pressure to protect their flocks.

This is the first time Alberta has been hit with the virus. An outbreak in 2004 in British Columbia devastated chicken farmers.

Jean-Michel Laurin, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council, expressed grave concern.

“It’s a very serious situation for our industry, obviously,” Mr. Laurin said. “We’ve sort of been on, I would say, high alert for quite some time and I know our producers have been taking strengthening biosecurity measures on farms for quite some time now because we knew there was a significant threat.”

In a statement this week, Alberta Agriculture Minister Nate Horner said the latest outbreak of this virus was originally detected in backyard flocks and commercial poultry flocks in the eastern United States, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, and in a wild bird in Vancouver.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is handling an investigation into the cases, but no one from the CFIA was available for comment Thursday.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada said this week the food industry is making adjustments to maintain supplies of poultry and eggs in the face of the outbreak of avian flu in Canada and around the world.

The highly pathogenic strain H5N1 has been detected in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Alberta since late 2021.

Positive cases can lead to the culling of entire flocks. So far, about 260,000 birds have been euthanized or killed by the virus in Canada. Approximately 166,000 of those were in Alberta and 84,000 were in Ontario.

While most forms of avian flu are mild, H5N1 can cause serious disease and death in birds.

The B.C. Poultry Association has introduced the highest biosecurity “code red” measures, which include rigorous cleaning and sanitation practices. Farmers change their shoes and clothes multiple times when moving about their farms and sanitize incoming and outgoing vehicle tires regularly.

“Whatever’s outside cannot get inside with the animals, the animals have to be protected from any outside elements,” said Jeff Notenbomer, a farmer near Lethbridge, Alta., and chair of the Alberta Hatching Egg Producers.

Lisa Bishop-Spencer, brand and communications director of Chicken Farmers of Canada, said there is no current concern about the supply of poultry products.

“There’s no issue with supply chains; we want consumers to know that poultry and egg products are readily available. And, as always, they’re safe to eat,” Ms. Bishop-Spencer said. “This is not a food safety issue. This is a flock health issue.”

In a statement, B.C. Minister of Agriculture and Food Lana Popham said, “The public-health risk is extremely low and there is no risk to food safety.”

“I know this is an incredibly stressful time for our poultry and egg producers. They have endured so much over the past two years. They have shown they are truly resilient,” the statement said.

Mr. Notenbomer said that if his farm were to be depopulated, it would take about a year and a half before he returned to a regular cycle.

“This is the first time we’ve ever had a positive in Alberta. And, you know, we jumped up to seven positives pretty quickly. So all the farmers here are pretty worried and upset,” Mr. Notenbomer said.

“We have questions, too, why this year? What’s different this year that we’re seeing this challenge?”

Ray Nickel is a poultry farmer in South Abbotsford, B.C., and a spokesperson for the BCPA.

Mr. Nickel’s farm was infected with the avian influenza in 2004. “We’ve gone through this before in B.C. on numerous occasions,” he said. “It doesn’t make it any easier when you think about the breadth. In fact, sometimes it’s worse because we know what this looks like. We don’t wish this on anybody.”

Mr. Notenbomer said his heart goes out to the affected farmers, calling the situation “life-changing.”

“It’s devastating. It’s emotional, it’s scarring on them, that’s for sure. You talk about what it means to be a farmer, and it’s everything we do is to care for our animals. It’s our life. And so, when our animals are in distress, we’re in distress.”

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