Egg Farmers Grateful for Support During Avian Influenza Crisis

As a farmer cooperative, United Egg Producers (UEP) is the voice of egg farmers who independently produce more than 90 percent of all eggs in the U.S. Today, we use that voice to say thank you to the thousands of people who have supported egg farmers during the worst crisis in our history.

The past few months have been devastating for the U.S. egg community, especially in Midwestern states. We have been consumed in a tireless battle against highly pathogenic avian influenza (AI). This outbreak was unprecedented in its rapid spread and in the difficulty of identifying how it spread. Egg farmers have been fighting a dangerous enemy – one they could not see.

Since mid-April, about 12 percent of the U.S. commercial layer flock has been lost, including 36 million hens and six million pullets in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin; the unprecedented spread of this virus was as indiscriminate as it was fast.

Those farms affected by AI have accomplished a multitude of seemingly impossible tasks – managing hen mortality, euthanizing entire flocks, identifying and securing responsible disposal options, and beginning the arduous process of cleaning and disinfecting barns. Throughout this devastating time, farmers showed utmost concern for care and safety of their hens, employees, communities, and countless contractors and volunteers. We are confident the flocks will repopulate, and these family businesses will rebuild.

To list all who have helped would be overwhelming. The outpouring of support ranges from emergency funding by Congress and USDA to rural communities which organized food for farm workers. We certainly must recognize USDA-APHIS, federal and state officials for their leadership, swift response and hard work. The government stepped up when needed for support, guidance and on-the-ground resources. For that, we are extremely grateful.

Early in the AI crisis, UEP members and staff prioritized three areas to research and develop direction, with our goal to support egg farmers, limit further spread of AI and curb future outbreaks.

  • Biosecurity vigilance
    Egg farmers have implemented biosecurity and disease prevention measures for many years, enhanced after the 1980s AI outbreaks in Pennsylvania and FDA’s Egg Safety Rule, issued in 2009. This AI outbreak did not catch producers unprepared, but the uncontrollable spread of this AI strain stymied even the best efforts of both farmers and APHIS.

    In biosecurity, we can do more, and we are doing more. Egg farms are tightening vehicle restrictions, increasing disinfection procedures, and expanding worker training. UEP distilled chapters of biosecurity recommendations from USDA APHIS, and the American Egg Board distributed producer-friendly documents to every commercial egg farmer. Ideas to increase biosecurity range from minor procedural shifts to large investments in equipment and facilities. Every egg farmer is urged to consider these recommendations to heighten disease prevention and amplify a culture of increased biosecurity.

  • Indemnity to affected farms
    Federal indemnities to cover the value of lost birds and egg production, as well as cleaning and disinfection costs, are essential to restoring our industry. These indemnities were established to help farmers as a type of “insurance” during an unforeseen crisis. They can make the difference between farms’ failure and survival.

    Therefore, UEP has launched an aggressive campaign seeking additional indemnity funds from USDA. This campaign is currently ongoing and we are hopeful USDA will soon recognize that these additional funds are needed in order for these egg farms to survive.

  • Potential of vaccination to reduce spread
    Vaccination was considered as one possibility to reduce the AI spread. Use of vaccines in poultry is a complex issue. Egg farmers support ongoing research by USDA and others who are working to develop vaccines for possible future protection. Although vaccination is not currently an option, UEP will continue to collaborate with others in the poultry community and animal health experts as vaccination possibilities evolve.

In preparation for the future, UEP is also cooperating with poultry scientists, avian disease prevention experts and epidemiologists to determine what caused this disease to spread so widely and so rapidly. More importantly, we want to determine how we can prevent a situation like this from recurring.

While we’re still assessing the full consequences of AI, there are a few things we know for certain.

  • There have been job losses. Affected farms have worked to preserve jobs, but a difficult reality is that without the production of eggs, routine jobs on those farms are limited. Some farms have been able to move employees to other positions, but others have been forced to conduct layoffs.
  • Impacts in farm communities go far beyond direct farm employment. Transportation, feed production and other businesses also are significantly impacted. In many rural communities, egg farms are among the leading employers, taxpayers and philanthropists.
  • There have been supply and price disruptions. While we expect longer-term stability, AI created some short-term supply challenges. Hardest hit was the egg products market, which provides eggs for foodservice, food manufacturing and other ingredient-based processes. We estimate 30 percent of the total hens producing eggs for further processing were lost due to AI.
  • Even with price increases, eggs remain among the most affordable sources of protein. The American public has continued to purchase eggs and recognizes that eggs remain safe to eat. This strain cannot be transmitted through properly handled and cooked eggs or meat.

While we feel some relief in that there have been no new detections since early June, our vigilance cannot and will not stop.

Our farms and their employees, rural communities and egg customers have suffered an unprecedented blow this year; this cannot happen again. We pledge our best efforts to overcome this virus and re-build a healthy and viable egg industry. It is vital that we work diligently and collaboratively to prevent more harm to the egg and poultry community.

I am proud to work for an organization that, even amidst crisis, takes a proactive, positive and constructive approach. UEP is truly led by egg farmers – for egg farmers. Over the past few months, our members have rallied together, prayed together, cried together and fought this disease together. At a time when we are so weakened, the egg community still has never been stronger.

Again, thank you. The outpouring of support has been invaluable during this very difficult time.

– Chad Gregory, President & CEO, United Egg Producers
– As printed in Feedstuffs, July 27, 2015

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