Public notices eagle deaths & higher prices
CHICAGO, Illinois––Soaring egg prices, bald eagles dropping from the skies in at least 14 states, and 200 dead birds found at Baker Lake in the Forest Preserves of Cook County, forty miles northwest of Chicago, in mid-April 2022 began to bring the mainstream mass media spotlight to the H5N1 avian flu virus.
Attacking wildlife and poultry farms throughout the U.S. since February 2022, and globally since October 2021, H5N1 is unlikely to kill a million Americans, as COVID-19 has, or to occasion nationwide masking and vaccination requirements.
H5N1 is, however, already a bigger cause of food price inflation than even the economic disruptions caused by the February 24, 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Poultry prices soar
The average American eats eggs or prepared foods including eggs between five and six days a week, and consumes more than a quarter pound of chicken per week as well.
But with U.S. chicken meat prices nearly doubling and egg prices up 44% since 2021, according to USDA data, plant-based alternatives to chicken and egg products are enjoying unprecedented opportunity to grab and hold market share.
Plant-based vegan chicken substitutes and the JustEggs egg replacer were already in almost every U.S. supermarket, and now are offered at increasingly competitive prices.
“It’s going to be worse than 2015”
“This is not the first time an avian flu outbreak has affected egg prices in the U.S.,” warned Andrew Marquardt of Fortune magazine on April 18, 2022.
“In 2015,” Marquardt recalled, “egg prices increased nearly 80% after more than 48 million chickens were killed during the worst avian flu outbreak in U.S. history. But experts say this current outbreak has the potential to be even worse than 2015.”
“We are two months into the outbreak now,” Gro Intelligence senior research analyst Grady Ferguson told The Washington Post, “and the safety protocols haven’t worked. I don’t want to be a Chicken Little,” Ferguson said, “but I think it’s going to be worse than last time,” with about 1.3% of the total U.S. chicken flock and 6% of the turkey flock already killed either by the H5N1 avian flu virus or to prevent outbreaks of the disease––incurable and inevitably fatal in birds––from spreading.
The known toll of just 36 bald eagles would not by itself be hugely alarming. As many or more bald eagles have been killed by individual poachers in recent years.
What is alarming, though, is that bald eagles do not tend to live in large flocks, or congregate by the hundreds or thousands, as do the migratory wild waterfowl who bring avian flu outbreaks south from their summer feeding areas inside the Arctic Circle.
There, in the Far North, ducks and geese from all over the world annual mix, mingle, and exchange whatever viruses they may be carrying, stimulating viral mutation into new and occasionally more deadly forms.
Eagle nesting success down 30%
Bald eagles normally are scavengers. Bald eagles scavenge waterfowl carcasses, but except when killing sickly waterfowl, would usually have little likelihood of picking up live viruses from ducks or geese, and less likelihood of infecting each other.
That notwithstanding, after three eagles dead from H5N1 were found around the Georgia, Georgia Department of Natural Resources wildlife conservation program manager Bob Sargent told media that bald eagle nesting success appears to be down about 30% in 2022 as compared to 2021.
A hint that mass wild bird deaths from H5N1 might be coming came on April 8, 2022, when the Wisconsin Humane Society in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, collected a bald eagle who could not fly. Overnight care failed to save the bald eagle, who was euthanized the next day.
Cook County Forest Preserves biologists had already collected seven dead cormorants from Baker Lake, about 65 miles south of Milwaukee, but laboratory testing did not confirm that H5N1 was the cause of the cormorant deaths for another week.
By then the bird death toll at Baker Lake––site of one of the biggest great blue heron rookeries in the Midwest––had soared into the hundreds.
Big Red Farms
But that was a tiny fraction of the toll at the Big Red Farms egg barn in Wakefield, Nebraska, owned by Michael Foods, the largest U.S. producer of processed eggs.
Michael Foods is in turn a subsidiary––since 2014––of Post Holdings.
“Milton G. Waldbaum and Dan Gardner founded our egg-processing business in 1950 here in Wakefield,” according to Michael Foods literature. “Our location raises chickens and produces tankers of liquid egg to be consumed by our processing facilities.”
A full-time staff of only eight people look after 1.7 million birds at Big Red Farms, according to a variety of media accounts.
Has had issues before
An H5N1 outbreak in early April 2022 triggered the mass killing of all 1.7 million, Nebraska state veterinarian Roger Dudley told media, without actually naming the farm, but Sioux City Journal reporter Nick Hytrek tracked it down.
“Michael Foods also operates an egg processing facility in Wakefield that receives eggs from area producers,” Hytreak noted.
Big Red Farms has had issues before.
Ben & Jerry’s in August 2006 quit buying eggs from Michael Foods two months after Humane Society of the U.S. marketing outreach coordinator Erin Williams disclosed hidden camera video of alleged abuses at the battery cage facility.
Neglect of health & safety
The video showed “live hens confined in cages with decomposing birds, hens unable to untangle themselves [after becoming] caught in the wire cages, sick and injured hens, and immobilized hens dying from starvation, only inches away from food and water,” Williams told Sioux City Journal staff writer Bret Hayworth.
Eight years later the Occupational Safety & Health Administration of the U.S. Department of Labor charged Michael Foods with five “serious safety violations, including exposing employees to nitrogen hazards,” said an OSHA media release, which “led to the death of a worker on June 19, 2014.
“The 23-year-old Latino worker was found unresponsive in a tanker truck at the company’s Big Red Farms facility,” OSHA explained. “He was conducting sampling of the tank, which contained egg products and nitrogen.”
The Big Red Farms facility is about an hour’s drive west of a Michael Farms cage-free site in Bloomfield, Nebraska, where a February 27, 2020 barn fire killed as many as 400,000 of the approximately four million hens at the site.
“With the latest report, H5N1 cases around the state have now caused the killing of about 2.7 million birds, including about 970 000 broiler chickens in Butler County, and dozens of other chickens or waterfowl in Merrick, Holt, and Scotts Bluff counties,” observed Matt Olberding of the Lincoln Journal-Star.
“Millions of birds have also been killed in Iowa in recent months,” Olberding added, “because of bird flu cases found there.”
All told, the current H5N1 pandemic has now hit at least 33 of the 48 continental U.S. states, including the facilities in Elkhart County, Indiana that lead the U.S. in production of duck eggs and duck meat.
H5N1 has also hit Brome Lake Ducks, of multiple locations near Brome Lake, Quebec, Canada, the largest producer of duck eggs and meat in North America.
The Quebec outbreaks, disclosed on April 12, 2022, came two days after the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife announced that bald eagles found dead and dying at South Hero and Shelburne had tested positive for H5N1. Both locations are alongside Lake Champlain, the northern end of which is about an hour’s drive east of Brome Lake.
Mutating to hit mammals
The U.S. and Canadian outbreaks so far have not mutated into flu strains that afflict mammals, but Hokkaido University epidemiologist Yoshihiro Sakoda on April 13, 2022 told Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases members that his laboratory had on April 4 and April 8, respectively, found H5N1 in “two mammals –– one Ezo red fox and one raccoon dog –– at the same place in Sapporo.”
China meanwhile has reported 12 human cases of H5N6 thus far in 2022, a mutated form of H5N1 that can be deadly. Only 76 cases have been detected since 2014.
This suggests that the rate of occurrence may have recently tripled.
All known victims have recently visited live poultry markets or worked with poultry.
China tends to be where avian influenzas of all types most often mutate to infect humans because China hosts by far the most migratory waterfowl of any nation each summer, who feed in rice paddies in proximity to domestic waterfowl and pigs.
Most flus afflicting humans infect pigs first, then mutate into the forms harmful to humans.