(The Center Square) – As flocks around the country continue to test positive for avian influenza, experts in Maryland are hopeful that the worst is over.
So far this year, four commercial flocks in the Free State have tested positive for the highly virulent virus that resulted in the elimination of 1.7 million chickens, according to Maryland Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Steve Connelly.
“It’s getting better, but it’s still high risk,” Connelly told The Center Square. “It’s getting better in our commercial flocks – those four flocks that were affected in Maryland – we’re getting closer to the end of cleanup and virus elimination.”
Farmers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and the Delmarva peninsula, have been heartened that there hasn't been a new case since mid-March, said James Fisher, communications director for the Delmarva Chicken Association.
“We believe it’s because chicken growers, chicken companies, ally businesses are all taking biosecurity very seriously,” Fisher told The Center Square.
For those farmers who had to depopulate their flocks due to infection, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has set up an indemnity program to cover the loss of chickens and eggs, Connelly said.
Impacts to Maryland poultry farmers have reached beyond simply the four flocks infected, however.
Growers within the infection zone have suffered missed or delayed incomes as a result of days or weeks in which they couldn't receive new birds to start new flocks for growing, Fisher said.
“These farms are basically a family-run small business,” he said. “They budget for the year, how many flocks they can expect for a given year and delays in receiving new chicks can upset that budget. So, growers definitely missed income and will end the year in some cases with one flock’s less income.”
Fisher said DCA is encouraging Maryland legislators and officials to figure out ways to help those growers who missed out on income.
The effects of bird flu have rippled out to consumers as well.
Connelly said prices for eggs and poultry have risen from the virus, but it’s hard to calculate how much as other economic factors like inflation and supply chain issues have muddied the waters.
Both Connelly and Fisher are optimistic about the virus’ trajectory.
“We see light at the end of the tunnel, but still the risk is still pretty high because the virus is circulating in the wild bird pop,” Connelly said.
He pointed out the positive cases appeared first in the Carolinas and followed migratory waterfowl. The hope is the virus will fade as migratory waterfowl continue to move north.
Biosecurity is the farmer’s best protection, noted Connelly.
Until bird flu is out of the headlines, Connelly assures Maryland residents that their poultry food supply is safe to eat.
“We’re making sure of that,” he said.