To date, more than 50 cases of avian flu have been reported across multiple states, with more than 6.5 million chickens and turkeys destroyed. This week, Wisconsin and Minnesota declared states of emergency to deal with the epidemic. The Sunrise case is especially alarming because the farm is believed to have adhered to strict biosecurity standards.
Poultry producers face stiff protocols when their facilities become contaminated. An infected farm is immediately quarantined until further notice, cleaned from top to bottom, and tested repeatedly until all signs of the virus are extinct from the premises.
Most importantly, in that weeks-long process, the entire facility is "depopulated," a necessary step to prevent the spread of the virus to other locations and to ensure that exposed poultry doesn't make its way into the food supply.
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The expense is staggering for a producer. Some federal aid is available, but it doesn't cover the cost of lost product. And the disposal process itself is costly.
"It could be hundreds of thousands of dollars. An operation like the Iowa facility [Sunrise Farms] that's really a big facility, could very easily run up to few million dollars," said Dr. John Clifford, chief veterinary officer at the USDA.
At Sunrise, roughly a million hens have already succumbed to the flu, which can kill a bird in as little as 48 hours.
The question state and federal authorities have been grappling with all week, though, is how to dispose of millions of hens after they've been "humanely euthanized." A Sonstegard spokesman said no final decisions have been made, but a course of action is expected "very soon."