In the tiny village of Saint-François, known as New Brunswick’s “chicken capital,” millions of birds are under careful supervision in barns as wildlife outside continues to catch the avian flu.
The community, about 40 kilometres west of Edmundston, is a hub for raising and selling poultry in Atlantic Canada.
With avian influenza rapidly spreading at farms across Canada, and hundreds of wild birds found dead, there’s fear it could find its way into commercial operations.
At Groupe Westco, a major player in the Canadian poultry industry, biosecurity measures have been ramped up.
President and CEO Tom Soucy said avian flu is a major threat and has the potential to disrupt operations.
“This is the health of the birds which is your entire company,” he said.
WATCH | Poultry industry steps up biosecurity precautions against avian flu
Avian influenza can easily enter poultry barns through contaminated boots, water droplets — even through the air.
It often spreads through droppings from migrating wild birds.
At Groupe Westco, staff are changing their boots and clothing when moving between facilities, visitors are not allowed, and disinfection has been ramped up.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency estimates nearly two million birds at commercial farms have been destroyed because of the virus.
After a case is detected, the agency moves in quickly to contain the spread. It kills all birds in the affected area, supervises their destruction and quarantines the surrounding area to prevent farm-to-farm spread.
Soucy said if the breeder flocks in Saint-François were impacted, it could take a year and a half for Groupe Westco to fully recover. The area is home to millions of birds.
“It would probably take close to six months before I would get the first chick, and that would only be maybe 1/8th of my production. And then every four weeks, 1/8th,” he said.
From wild birds to farms
Avian influenza is rapidly spreading through wildlife across North America.
In New Brunswick, it’s suspected to be the cause of hundreds of birds turning up dead on beaches. They’re being sent to the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative on Prince Edward Island for testing.
Megan Jones, the organization’s Atlantic regional director, said the unusual outbreak is prompting concerns over spread to commercial flocks.
“If wild birds can have contact with domestic birds, then this disease can definitely affect them. And it has killed quite a large number of birds throughout many parts of Canada that have had outbreaks at certain farms,” she said.
In western Canada, the illness is finding its way onto poultry farms. It’s the first time the industry has seen a country-wide outbreak of highly-pathogenic avian flu — meaning it’s highly contagious and deadly.
Lisa Bishop-Spencer, a spokesperson for Chicken Farmers of Canada, said this is the first time there have been cases in multiple provinces at once.
“It is absolutely unprecedented,” she said.
“It’s more contagious among wild birds and then it’s coming into the barns as a highly-pathogenic strain, rather than mutating,” she said.
Bishop-Spencer said in previous years farm-to-farm spread has been more common, while this year more cases can be tied to wild birds.
The avian flu is not a food safety risk, and there is no evidence to suggest it can be transmitted to humans who eat poultry or eggs that have been infected. There haven’t been any supply issues to date, so the outbreaks haven’t resulted in consumer price increases.
In New Brunswick, only backyard flocks have been affected so far. Producers are continuing to remain vigilant as they wait for migratory birds to head south, which is expected to decrease the risk.
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