The current avian influenza situation has rung the alarm bells across the globe. The American poultry and egg industry is suffering losses. James Sumner,
president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council is worried: “We are facing an entire new world order.”
What worries you the most about the current situation around avian influenza?
“We have been dealing with avian influenza for decades, but it was primarily a problem in Asia. We always thought this was largely due to the number of backyard flocks, lack of biosecurity and insufficient government oversight. The problems were always somewhat distant from us. That all changed in January this year when a high pathogen version found its way in migratory flocks in the US. When that happens there is no safeguard. We can’t shoot them all, so all of the sudden we found ourselves in a situation nobody anticipated. As a result we are facing an entire new world order. No country is immune to this type of avian influenza. The country which has probably the best biosecurity in the world is now being ravished by this virus, our most effective measures seem to be insufficient to protect our industry. When it is in the migration fowl, there is little you can do to protect your flocks. We are all unsure how it is spreading, there are so many possibilities. Initially it was solely by droppings from migrating birds, now we are looking at various other ways in which it may be transmitted. Nothing has been ruled out.”
Some countries decided to close their borders. What do you think of this measure?
“Governments reacted excessively beyond what is necessary and beyond what is recommended by the OIE. Some of their reaction may be influenced less by legitimate biosecurity purposes than by trade related purposes. Some governments are reacting based on insufficient knowledge or lack of understanding of the situation and of how it is handled in the US. None of the affected birds and eggs have made it into the human food chain, so there is no risk involved in the current situation. Actually this virus is probably spread because it wasn’t properly contained within the last few years and has been allowed to affect the migrating birds. Once the virus is in some of these flyways, it will eventually find its way into all migrating flyways and this is what we fear the most. It will impact the global industry. Our global poultry industry has to learn how to co-exist with avian flu continuously present in the environment. The US is approaching a loss of 2% of the total turkey production, 6% of the total egg production and with no end in sight where it is going to lead us. I’m not sure we can vaccinate ourselves out of this problem. In fact it has been revealed that Mexican vaccines were proven not to be effective. The virus can easily change, evolve or mutate. The scientists I have spoken to don’t feel that vaccinating is the proper solution, but apparently it’s being considered as a possible option. We are looking at all options.”
What should be done against the spread of avian flu?
“Experts encourage to limit vehicular traffic. This includes taking precautions to make sure houses are protected from possible exposure to the virus, including dust particles, items brought into the facility, insects and rodents. It also includes being careful the feed is not contaminated, nor the vehicles in which it is transported. Contamination lurks everywhere. In developing countries it could be a different story because of the backyard production. Biosecurity and technical information should be shared with them. People don’t realise the potential impact.”
You are involved in the organisation of a conference in June. What do you hope to achieve there?
“Our US Department of Agriculture organises the conference primarily aimed at the global community, to share info and to receive input from other experts around the world. They invited their governmental counterparts, and chief veterinary officers of major trading and producing countries from most continents and we invited several industry representatives. We will discuss various ways of dealing with regionalisation and compartmentalisation and the impact it is having on trade. One of our big concerns is that some countries are taking extreme measures to restrict the flow of poultry products and genetic materials. The US is the home of around 95% of the world’s genetic stock. Restricting distribution would effect the availability of poultry species around the world. This could have an unrealised impact, disrupting the global poultry production in the coming months and years. Hopefully the conference will result in a better global understanding about avian influenza and we hope that some countries would reassess their practices with regard to restricted measures, knowing what is at stake. Many countries take measures for other reasons than to protect their industry. Those countries apparently don’t have proper understanding of all these issues and aspects of the biosecurity measurements to be taken, otherwise they would not stipulate a country has to be completely free of all incidents for six months, even wild birds. This is not realistic or achievable anymore. I think South Korea needs to reconsider its policies along with other countries. China banned all products from the US, based on the first outbreak. One can but wonder why China takes steps like this. It probably involves economic interests.”
How do you see the future of the poultry sector in both the US and the rest of the world?
“I am not sure what to expect. We will have to be a much more biosecure global industry. I think the days of free-range poultry will not likely continue. In many areas the free-range birds have been moved indoors. I realise this conflicts with the current trend of animal friendly housing systems, but you can’t have it both ways.
Consumers will have to come to the realisation that their vision of how livestock should be produced is not necessarily in line with practical and biosecurity practises. In developing countries it is an even bigger challenge. They often have neither the facilities nor the financing or the technical understanding to know how to maintain the proper biosecurity. Many developing countries will eventually need to depend more on developed areas where they can better control diseases. That is why I find it more shocking that the US, which has the most advanced techniques, is finding itself in this very difficult situation.”
James H. Sumner ( 68), Stone Mountain, Georgia
Sumner is President of USA Poultry & Egg Export Council and President of the International Poultry Council. In 2005, Sumner was elected president of the International Poultry Council. Prior to joining the USAPEEC staff, Jim served as Director of Corporate Communications for Dairymen, Inc., a regional milk marketing cooperative based in Louisville, KY, and as Director of Marketing for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. In the 1970s he served as the Farm Editor of the Lancaster (PA) Intelligencer Journal newspaper.