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New research: stopping poultry pandemics

Scientists and producers weigh the feasibility of on-farm carcass disposal in cases of foreign animal disease outbreaks

10 November 2021, at 5:50pm

Biosecurity has always been a priority on farms. Because of the speed with which a poultry disease can spread through a flock, producers and researchers are constantly improving their practices for controlling animal disease outbreaks.

A new study, published recently in the Journal of Applied Poultry Research, examines poultry producers’ willingness to pay additional costs for on-farm carcass disposal. As the study authors write, on-farm disposal may be necessary in cases where carcasses cannot be safely transported to new locations without risk of further spreading a disease.

“When an FAD [foreign animal disease] is reported, poultry producers that rely on off-premises carcass disposal (e.g., renderers or landfills) may be required to develop on-farm disposal capacity (e.g., incinerators or burial) rapidly if their operation falls within movement restriction zones,” write Campbell et al.

The researchers, based at University of Tennessee, Knoxville; Michigan Technological University; and Kansas State University, surveyed poultry producers across the country and found that they were, on average, willing to pay up to $15,651 for additional disposal capacity.

Two important data points stand out. First, producers who owned their operations reported a lower financial capacity for on-farm disposal. The researchers speculate that it may be harder for sole-owners to take on that financial burden. Second, a quarter of the survey respondents stated there was a less than 5 percent chance of a foreign animal disease outbreak affecting their operation within the next 25 years. These responses came despite explicit survey instructions asking producers to consider the scenario of an outbreak within the next 10 years.

The new analysis focuses on the routine, or everyday mortality, on premises not infected by a foreign animal disease but quarantined nonetheless because they fall within the disease control area, which is usually designed as within 6.21 miles of the outbreak site. Figuring out the costs of managing a healthy flock within a quarantine flock is essential, because—as many have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic—quarantines come with major disruptions to day-to-day routines.

“If a producer does not have a biosecure method or supplies to dispose of routine poultry mortality on their farm, then they may resort to measures that could negatively affect the surrounding community and environment such as burying carcasses too close to the ground water table or using an open trench that can become a vector for disease spread,” write the study authors.

With these new survey results, the team hopes to guide the development of new, practical biosecurity plans that incentivize on-farm disposal for the good of the industry and the food supply.

The researchers point out that there are 450,620 poultry farms in the United States, so the overall costs to the industry—and devastation to the country’s food supply chain—would be massive if a foreign animal disease were to spread. As an example, the researchers cite the 2014-2015 highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) outbreak, which spread to just 211 commercial poultry farmers and 21 backyard poultry farmers. This outbreak cost the federal government more than $950 million to control.

In the end, this research could help strengthen the food supply chain across the United States.

“Because poultry is a major component of Americans’ diet and an important sector of the U.S. agricultural economy, producers have additional pressures to protect their livestock to ensure a healthy and consistent supply of poultry products,” write the study authors.

What does this study mean for producers?

  • Data from producers and poultry scientists may encourage the federal government to provide financial incentives for on-farm disposal.
  • Even with strict biosecurity plans in place, disease outbreaks have devastated poultry operations in recent years.
  • More work needs to be done to lay out the benefits of on-farm disposal, since farms that do not have adequate biosecurity plans and protections in place can put surrounding farms, the community and economy at risk.

The full paper, titled “Poultry producer's willingness to invest in on-farm carcass disposal,” can be found in The Journal of Applied Poultry Research® and online here.