The death of more than 46 million chickens and turkeys in a bird flu outbreak is opening a rare fissure within the usually tight-knit U.S. poultry industry, pitting farmers with infected flocks against those who so far largely have sidestepped the worst outbreak in U.S. history. The issue is whether to vaccinate poultry against the highly pathogenic bird flu virus. Hard-hit turkey producers in the Midwest say they will continue to urge the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to approve a vaccine to protect their flocks, even after the agency decided on Wednesdayagainst releasing a vaccine it was developing because tests showed it was not effective enough. Chicken farmers in states not yet hit by the bird flu, such as Mississippi, are lobbying against approval of a vaccination program without more testing and economic analysis. Many producers worry vaccinated birds could spread the virus, while exporters say a vaccination program could act as a trigger for rejection of U.S. poultry in foreign markets. James Sumner, president of the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council, highlighted the economic risks of vaccinating birds but said the organization did not have an official position on whether USDA should approve a vaccination program.
“Certain segments of the industry certainly do want to vaccinate, but it comes with complications,” he said. “I don’t think there are too many countries that have vaccinated and found it successful for their industry.”
The stakes in the U.S. decision on whether to approve a vaccine are particularly high for farmers who raise broiler chickens for meat. U.S. producers export about $5.7 billion worth of poultry and eggs each year, about three-quarters of which comes from the broiler industry.
The USA Poultry and Egg Export Council estimates about $600 million in trade losses in the first quarter of this year alone due to restrictions imposed by importing countries because of bird flu infections.
So far, most countries that have imposed restrictions due to the outbreak have restricted shipments from geographic areas with infections. However exporters worry that more buyers may impose nationwide bans on imports of U.S. poultry if a vaccine is used. The exact impact is unknown because the United States has never before used a vaccine to fight highly pathogenic bird flu.