Highly lethal bird flu found in Kentucky and Virginia flocks, raising fear of wider outbreak in poultry farms

Chickens on a farm in Iowa. Birds in Kentucky and Virginia were recently confirmed to have avian influenza after an outbreak in an Indiana flock. (Versova/AP) (AP)

Poultry operations in Kentucky and Virginia were confirmed to have birds infected with a highly lethal form of avian flu, federal agriculture officials said Monday, days after a flock of turkeys in Indiana tested positive, raising worries about a wider outbreak in the country.

The most recently identified infections occurred at a Tyson Foods commercial broiler in Fulton County, Ky., that has 240,000 chickens, and in a backyard flock of mixed species in Fauquier County, Va. Kentucky officials said they were also waiting for the results of tests on a flock of turkeys in Webster County.

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The infections come after 29,000 turkeys were destroyed in Indiana once officials detected the presence of highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI, last week in Dubois County. Federal officials said the Indiana outbreak was the first confirmed case in commercial poultry in the United States since 2020.

The developments raise concerns that avian influenza could affect more poultry operations in the United States, which is the world's top producer of poultry and the No. 2 exporter in volume, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. They also come as the United States is seeing higher than usual inflation rates in necessities such as food.

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Avian influenza is carried by wild bird populations that spread the virus to domestic birds. Outbreaks involving more virulent strains result in higher mortality rates in domestic birds, potentially causing disruptions to the food supply. The outbreak in Fulton County was found after the operation reported an increase in poultry deaths to Kentucky officials.

Avian influenza doesn't pose a public health risk to humans, U.S. agriculture officials said, so long as poultry and eggs are properly cooked at internal temperatures above 165 degrees. No human cases of avian influenza have been detected in the United States, though more than 700 global cases have been reported since 2003, federal officials say.

Officials have quarantined the operations in Kentucky and Virginia, the Agriculture Department said, and birds at the locations will not enter the food system.

Tyson Foods is heightening biosecurity measures at other farms in the region, Gary Mickelson, a company spokesman, said in an emailed statement. The company tests all flocks for avian influenza before the birds leave the farms, he said. The recent outbreak will not affect Tyson's overall chicken production because thousands of farms raise the birds for the firm, he added.

In a deadly outbreak that occurred between December 2014 and June 2015, more than 50 million chickens and turkeys either died of HPAI or were killed to stop the disease's spread, according to the Agriculture Department.

The federal government spent almost $880 million at the time to pay for the destruction of infected poultry, cleaning and indemnities for lost birds. The outbreak also led to a $1.1 billion decrease in exports of broiler chickens in 2015 compared with the prior year. Egg export income declined by $41 million, while income for turkeys fell by $177 million during the same period.

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