Avian Flu Threatening U.S. Poultry, Eggs Supply

Cartons of eggs are stacked on shelves at Laurenzo's Italian Center in Miami, Fla. on May 21, 2015. Egg prices have increased as officials make efforts to prevent the spread of the avian flu virus. Joe Raedle/Getty

Suppliers of U.S.-bred poultry are in crisis mode as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) continues to receive reports of avian influenza outbreaks, primarily from farms in the Midwest.

As of May 27, the USDA has reported a total of 187 outbreaks adding up to nearly 42.2 million birds affected by the avian flu.

Farms in Iowa, Minnesota, Idaho, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Indiana, Wisconsin, Kansas, Oregon, Missouri, Washington and California have been affected by the outbreak that began at the end of December. Since April 20, the USDA has received more than 60 detection reports of avian flu from farms in Iowa, the country's largest producer of chicken eggs, covering more than 28.1 million birds.

The multi-state outbreak has caused retail prices of chicken eggs to soar. According to Iowa Public Radio, a dozen eggs from commercial farms currently costs $2.26, up from 64 cents in mid-April. Alex Melton, a poultry economist with the USDA, told the media that the price of eggs is finally leveling out.

"When there is a scare in any sort of national market for any commodity, you often see a sharp increase in price followed by a tapering as people are able to take more stock and get more information," says Melton.

Avian influenza, also known as the bird flu, affects wild birds, including ducks and seagulls, as well as livestock raised for food supplies such as chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese. It spreads among flocks when healthy birds come in contact with sick birds, as well as through contact with contaminated farming equipment and other materials. The virus is transmitted through bird feces and secretions from the nose, mouth and eyes. It's also found on outer surfaces of eggshells from infected birds. In some instances, highly contagious strains of the virus can become airborne.

As with the human influenza, there are several strains of avian flu and some are more deadly and infectious than others. The current outbreak is of the high pathogenic H5 virus. These are often much more virulent in chickens and turkeys.

In the current outbreak, the USDA identified two mixed-origin viruses--H5N2 and the new H5N1--that are combinations of Asia's H5N8 virus and North American viruses. The H5N8 spread rapidly from Asia to the U.S. through bird migration in 2014, according to the USDA. The H5N8 then mixed with North American avian viruses. The mixed-origin virus contains the H5 portion of the Asian-origin virus that is especially fatal among poultry. The N portion of the viruses originates from North America and are low pathogenic strains.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the avian influenza virus typically isn't a threat to humans. However, some researchers believe that because the current outbreak is a result of mixed-origin viruses, this type of influenza may only be a few mutations away from zoonotic and then human-to-human transmission.

Several years ago, Derek Smith, a professor of infectious disease informatics at Cambridge University, made genetic modifications to the virus to prove this type of mutation is possible, but he was forced to stop the research because some critics feared the virus could be hijacked and used as a bioweapon. Smith said earlier this week that if the H5N1 virus were to mutate and infect humans the results could be as devastating as the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918. That outbreak killed approximately 50 million people.