The bird flu outbreak is bad for food companies, but it’s not a public health crisis — here’s why

April 21, 2015, 8:00 PM UTC
Photograph by Jamie McDonald — Getty Images

Iowa, the nation’s No. 1 egg-producing state, discovered a wide-reaching bird flu epidemic on Monday that’s affected millions of hens at an egg-laying facility. It’s the worst outbreak in a national epidemic that’s already caused Wisconsin to declare a state of emergency.

This outbreak is particularly bad news for food producers like Hormel Foods (HRL) that depend on these farms for meat and eggs. Hormel’s CEO Jeffrey Ettinger said Monday the company is facing “significant challenges” to its turkey supply chain, which could end up weighing on its earnings.

The current Iowa infection has hit 3.8 million hens, or 6% of the egg-laying hens in the state. All the birds have been quarantined and will be killed to prevent the spread of the disease, which can wipe out an entire flock within 48 hours. Iowa is one of 12 states affected by the bird flu since the beginning of the year, costing the Agriculture Department at least $45 million responding to the crisis.

The bright spot in all of this is that the epidemic is contained within the avian community only, and it poses little to no threat to humans.

Bird flu, also known as the H5N1 avian flu, is extremely rare in humans. While human cases have been reported — since 2003, 650 human infections across 15 countries have been reported to the World Health Organization — most of those infected had direct or close contact with infected poultry. There’s currently little chance of a human epidemic, given that person-to-person spread of the flu has been reported very rarely, and “has been limited, inefficient and not sustained,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC does warn that monitoring any cases in humans is vital since viruses are highly mutable and could gain the ability to spread easily between people. So far, no human cases have been reported as part of the current U.S. outbreak.

Symptoms of bird flu can include conjunctivitis, influenza-like signs (fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches) and lower respiratory disease requiring hospitalization. It requires a lab test to confirm the virus, which can be treated with antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu (generically known as oseltamivir).

—Reuters contributed to this report.
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