© 2024 KVPR | Valley Public Radio - White Ash Broadcasting, Inc. :: 89.3 Fresno / 89.1 Bakersfield
89.3 Fresno | 89.1 Bakersfield
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why experts say Merced County was hit hard by nationwide bird flu outbreak

Egg-laying hens and turkeys are among the birds most affected by the current outbreak
Flickr user Naomi
Egg-laying hens and turkeys are among the birds most affected by the current outbreak

Read the latest KVPR News headlines.

FRESNO, Calif. – For two years, a massive nationwide outbreak of avian influenza has wreaked havoc on the nation’s poultry. Since February 2022, more than 80 million birds have been euthanized around the country.

The hardest hit states include Iowa and Ohio. In California, the tally exceeds 7 million euthanized birds, with more than half of those – about 4.2 million – in Merced County alone.

“It's a huge number, yes,” said Merced County Agricultural Commissioner Sean Runyon.

Most of those were egg-laying hens, but some were chickens raised for meat as well as turkeys, ducks, and various backyard flocks. Also known as bird flu, avian influenza is extremely contagious, highly fatal to birds, and it renders all meat and eggs from the flock unsafe for human consumption.

And so detecting the virus in one bird requires draconian measures: the entire flock needs to be euthanized.

Runyon suspects the high local impact is due, in part, to the way the virus spreads: mostly by migratory birds. Their droppings, which can shed the virus if coming from an infected bird, contaminate waterways and can be transported on shoes, clothing and vehicle tires.

“We have a large migratory bird population because we have some wildlife refuges here and I think that adds a little bit more concern to it,” Runyon said.

In other respects, it shouldn’t necessarily be surprising that the consequences have been so dire for Merced County.

Located in the heart of one of the nation’s most abundant agricultural belts, Merced County is home to one of the largest poultry inventories in California, and the City of Livingston houses the headquarters of poultry giant Foster Farms.

Latest outbreak is among largest in the state

Dr. Annette Jones, the state veterinarian at the California Department of Food and Agriculture, told KVPR in January the state had already lost 30 percent of its egg-laying chickens. She considered the latest outbreak among the largest in her two decades with the agency.

“That's a pretty big impact on farms,” Jones said.

Losing a flock can set a farm back months – when considering the time it takes to obtain the birds and raise them to a marketable size and age. The federal government does pay farmers for a lot of their lost profits, and it also helps protect poultry operations from losing workers. That’s because cleaning up after an outbreak requires a lot of work, too – including composting carcasses, disinfecting barns, and otherwise preparing farms for birds to return after a quarantine period.

“The work is being done for the most part by the farmworkers, and that keeps them on the payroll because the federal government will support that cost,” Jones said.

Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, is the state’s second-hardest hit region for bird flu. There, a little over million birds have been affected, including a commercial flock of 200,000 ducks.

“Right at the beginning of January, we got one more order of duck breasts, and that was the last time we got anything,” said butcher Madisen Adkins of Panizzera Meat Company in Occidental.

Her duck supplier says they’ll be out of production until March. At least one Santa Rosa restaurant has had to take duck off its menu.

Bird flu impacts for consumers

At a Savemart in Fresno in January, eggs cost anywhere from $3.99 to $7.99 per dozen.
Kerry Klein
At a Savemart in Fresno in January, eggs cost anywhere from $3.99 to $7.99 per dozen.

This strain of bird flu isn’t a public health threat to humans, but it affects us in other ways.

In the San Joaquin Valley, the most obvious effect has been shortages of eggs, resulting in purchase limits and higher prices. As for why eggs haven’t been wiped out of grocery stores entirely, experts note that supply chains are generally robust enough to fill in a lot of the gaps left by the virus.

Under normal circumstances, “there's a lot of birds and eggs coming into California from other states because we have so many people here,” said Bill Mattos, President of the California Poultry Federation. “We can only supply, for example, half of the eggs and half of the meat chickens that the state needs to consume…so there's got to be some birds coming in from out of the area.”

Still, grocery store customers like Julie Bretz of Fresno said prices have been climbing.

Standing outside Food Maxx in central Fresno on a recent day, she said she has been cutting back on making one of her favorite dishes: a soup similar to Chinese egg-drop soup.

“It’s been $5 or $7 for a dozen,” she said. “That's too much.”

Marylou Mendoza, another Fresno resident, works for a youth residential facility where she cooks anything from breakfast sandwiches to scrambled eggs, and chorizo and eggs. Now, however, she said she is buying around half the eggs each week that she used to.

‘No bird should be going through that’

Until this is all sorted, poultry caretakers like Fresno State master’s student Brenda Hernandez Tapia will keep following a suite of so-called biosecurity measures aimed at protecting the 20,000 chickens she cares for. She and other poultry science students raise the birds from when they’re newborn chicks until they’re fully grown and ready to be sent off to partner company Foster Farms for meat production.

Every day, outside a long gray campus barn housing the birds, she walks over to a plastic bin full of protective equipment many might be accustomed to seeing in a hospital. She pulls on a pair of disposable plastic booties, then come coveralls, a hairnet, a mask, gloves, and a second pair of plastic booties. Lastly, she hoses her double-bootied feet off with disinfectant.

Poultry caretakers and processors across the country follow strict biosecurity protocols to keep avian influenza and other viruses away from their birds.
Kerry Klein
Poultry caretakers and processors across the company follow strict biosecurity protocols to keep avian influenza and other viruses away from their birds.
Master’s student Brenda Hernandez Tapia hoses off her feet before entering a biosecure poultry facility at Fresno State.
Kerry Klein
Master’s student Brenda Hernandez Tapia hoses off her feet before entering a biosecure poultry facility at Fresno State.

“Maybe because I'm kind of used to it, but I don't think it's too much,” she said. “I feel like it's just necessary .. We’re making sure that we spray off any diseases that we might have come in contact with.”

Avian influenza has never reached the chickens at Fresno State. But Hernandez Tapia said she monitors for any sign of infection, like nasal discharge similar to the runny noses that people can get with a case of the human flu..

“They’ll look pretty tired. Their feathers will be fluffed up and…they won't want to move very much,” she said. “No bird should be going through that.”

Noah Abrams of Northern California Public Media and Jovi (Zhaozhou) Dai of the Merced FOCUS and the Center for Public Integrity contributed to this story.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.