Poultry is big business for British Columbia, Canada's southwestern province, where fertile land, mild climate and a well-nurtured agricultural industry have become the spawning grounds for a $400 million business. At least a half-dozen countries look to BC's fertile Fraser Valley for turkey, chicken, duck and egg production, particularly at Christmas time, when turkey sales are a vital resource for the hundreds of farms that populate this area.
So, last week's report that two farms in the Fraser Valley were infected with the H5 avian flu meant potentially big problems for farmers across the girth of BC's most populous valley. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) wasted no time in responding -- quarantining the two farms and heightening other restrictions in the area. As of this Saturday, officials had imposed quarantine on three more farms, announcing that more than 140,000 birds would have to be euthanized.
The Fraser Valley is no stranger to the avian flu. In 2004, the area sustained an outbreak of H7N3, which resulted in more than 17 million birds being killed and financial losses in the tens of millions of dollars . There have been several other outbreaks since, leading the CFIA to implement new protocols and restrictions on public access to poultry farms.
But the CFIA already knows that with the public restrictions already in place, the culprit is likely not human-borne. Local wild fowl can also be carriers of the disease, making it difficult for farmers and inspectors to limit the exposure of their flocks to avian flu strains. Most of the affected farms are miles apart, offering little explanation to how at least five farms, in an area amounting to thousands of square miles, could have become infected. What is known, experts say, is that the strain in question has a "high pathogenicity," which means for farmers, a higher likelihood of loss to their flocks.
According to the World Health Organization, however, the H5 virus is much less likely to cause illness for humans, particularly in chicken that has been well cooked and handled appropriately. For this reason, precautions have been focused on stopping the transmission of the disease in fowl through the aggressive culling of birds in quarantined farms.
Still, countries that purchase poultry from British Columbia have been quick to impose their own bans or restrictions. The U.S., China and Japan are among the largest purchasers of Canadian poultry that have implemented temporary restrictions while the CFIA works to contain the outbreak and determine its cause. And for those Vancouver markets that regularly stock BC-bred turkeys for the Christmas season, stocks are likely to be smaller and harder to find. Either way, with the number of affected farms still undetermined, poultry farmers are bracing for a disappointing Christmas season.
Whether this latest outbreak will have any impact on how flocks are raised is yet unclear. Many of the farms house hundreds of birds at a time, increasing financial losses when an avian influenza is detected. With the increasing consumer interest in free run and organic poultry, it will be interesting to see if this latest outbreak leads to more discussion on the ways and settings in which poultry birds are raised and the increasing economic risks to flocks and to businesses from avian influenza infections.
Image of Fraser Valley: M Lounsbery
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.