Unprecedented Avian Flu Outbreak Takes Toll on B.C. Poultry Farms

A file photo of a chicken farm in Abbotsford. Recent cases of a deadly avian flu strain have been centred in the Fraser Valley. PHOTO BY JONATHAN HAYWARD /THE CANADIAN PRESS

In British Columbia’s Fraser Valley, more than 30 farms have been hit hard by a rapidly escalating avian flu outbreak, marking an unprecedented challenge in the region’s poultry industry.

The Escalating Crisis

According to Amanda Birttain, spokesperson for the B.C. Poultry Emergency Operations Centre, the situation is critical. “Stress and anxiety levels are off the charts,” she said. Since October 20, the number of infected farms has risen to 36, with no end in sight. This spike is the worst Birttain has seen in her twenty years in the field.

Devastating Impact on Poultry and Wildlife

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) reported that since April 2022, five million birds in B.C. have either died or been euthanized due to the outbreak. Primary Control Zones have been established to monitor and contain the spread. The disease not only affects poultry but has also been detected in wildlife, including skunks and foxes, posing a risk to pets that come in contact with infected animals.

Chilliwack chicken farmer Juschka Clarke said the current avian flu outbreak is devastating for B.C. farmers. PHOTO BY JUSTCHKA CLARKE

Farmers’ Struggle

Farmers like Juschka Clarke, an egg farmer from Chilliwack, face both emotional and financial hardships. “Watching friends of mine lose their birds is heart-wrenching,” Clarke shared. Many farmers have had to euthanize entire flocks and restart operations. “Our stress level’s pretty high right now. We pride ourselves in keeping our birds healthy and happy,” Clarke added, highlighting the increased biosecurity measures on farms.

Widespread Concerns

The outbreak’s scale is unprecedented, noted B.C.’s chief veterinarian Theresa Burns. About half of all Canadian cases are in B.C., significantly impacting poultry and wild bird populations globally. The risk to humans remains low, with only those having prolonged exposure to sick or dying birds being at risk.

Government and Industry Response

The CFIA leads the response with stringent cleaning and disinfection processes. Birttain assures that, despite the challenges, the overall poultry supply remains stable, and there’s no expected impact on poultry prices currently. However, the future remains uncertain.

A file photo of an Abbotsford chicken barn where avian flu was found in a past outbreak. Protocols have evolved and chickens are now euthanized and composted on-farm to prevent the spread of the virus to other farms. PHOTO BY WARD PERRIN

Looking Forward

With the virus thriving in cool, wet conditions, the Fraser Valley presents an ideal environment for its spread. Farmers like Clarke continue to upgrade their biosecurity measures, but the virus’s persistent nature raises concerns about long-term strategies. The B.C. Poultry Association is closely following international research, including vaccine strategies, although these pose trade challenges.

The Emotional Toll and Resilience

As farmers like Clarke brace for the winter, the emotional toll of the outbreak is palpable. “When I hear about friends, other farms, that have it, my heart stops,” Clarke said, reflecting the sentiment of many in the farming community. Despite the challenges, the resilience of the farmers shines through. “Farmers are tough,” Clarke affirmed, highlighting the community’s solidarity in facing this crisis.

Safe Poultry Consumption

Despite the outbreak, Burns reassured that there is no risk to food safety from avian flu, as cooked poultry is safe and no products from infected farms enter the food chain. B.C. can rely on its supply-managed system to mitigate any short-term shortages.


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