Will avian influenza lead to turkey shortage in B.C.?

As British Columbians make preparations for their Christmas dinner, questions are being raised about the possibility of a turkey shortage after avian flu forced the quarantine of five Fraser Valley poultry farms last week.

President of BC Poultry Producers Association Ray Nickels says two of the infected premises grow turkeys and had 20,000 birds ready to hit the market before the outbreak.

Nickels says the virus should not have an impact on their supply, but they do have the ability to work with their provincial counterparts should it happen.

“There are discussions that are happening about supply,” he says. “If that does become an issue, we are trying to have some back-up.”

Should there be a shortage, Nickels says it is hard to say where the imported turkeys would come from. Ontario is the largest turkey producer in the country, followed by Quebec, and the import will depend on which province has spare stock.

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The destruction of as many as 80,000 birds at four poultry farms has already begun in the effort to stem the spread of avian flu. The addition of a fifth farm could increase the total of culled birds to as much as 140,000.

Nickels says dealing with an avian flu outbreak can be stressful and emotionally trying for the farmers.

“We are nervous because although it is contained, we were not expecting this problem,” he says. “It is definitely a hit because you now have product that you expected to go at Christmas time that has to be put down.”

READ MORE: Avian flu at Fraser Valley farms same that killed birds in 2005, 2009

The current avian influenza virus is the same strain that struck Fraser Valley poultry farms in 2005 and 2009, but while those birds were all euthanized to contain the spread, they didn’t actually die of the virus. However, the H5N2 strain currently affecting the valley farms is highly pathogenic. It is much more virulent and can kill chickens within hours of their first symptoms. The same goes for turkeys but they do not develop any symptoms.

Nickels says they learned a lot from the 2009 outbreak.

“We are so much better prepared than we were in 2009 with our emergency response mechanisms, the way that we work together with the ministry of agriculture and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. But nonetheless, we have a viral infection of high pathogenicity nature that’s extremely harmful to our birds, and it is concerning.”

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Still, Nickels says consumers should not be concerned because it is an animal health, and not a human health, issue.

“Please continue to practice safe handling of poultry,” he says. “That does not change. But that has nothing to do with what’s going on.”

The outbreak of the highly-virulent strain of the flu has prompted several countries or regions, including Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, South Africa and Mexico, to ban poultry products from the B.C. or the whole of Canada. The U.S. has imposed restrictions on all poultry products from B.C.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the provincial government will be providing an update on the avian influenza situation in British Columbia at 1 p.m. today. More to come.

With files from Jon Azpiri