Avian flu leading to local turkey shortage in B.C.

If your holidays involve a big turkey feast, you might have a tough time finding the prime ingredient.

Avian flu has hit B.C.’s turkey producers hard at a critical time of year, wiping out dozens of flocks in the Fraser Valley and creating shortages at some local stores.

“This year, turkeys have been scarce. We’ve been dealing with the same turkey farmer for over 25 years now and this is the first time we’ve ever experienced anything like this where this is no turkey supply,” says Josh Penner, president of Meridian Farm Market, which operates eight locations across Metro Vancouver.

He says his supplier had to cull his birds after their flocks were infected, forcing a last-minute search for another source of specialty turkeys, which Penner found in Ontario, just in time.

“It was a total scramble. Half of his flock was affected at first and we thought we’d maybe still get half of our turkeys. Then a week later we found out none of them would be available, which really caused us to scramble and let customers know we wouldn’t have turkeys,” he tells CityNews.

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“Then we were able to source a supply later, which took about another week’s time. It’s definitely been tough and I really feel for our farmer and other farmers like him in this situation.”

Penner calls it a disaster for the local poultry sector, but reassures his customers they will have access to turkeys at Meridian Farm Market, at the same price as last year. However, he believes not all retailers have been as lucky in finding alternate supplies.

“As a result of our turkey shortage issue, we discovered that this affecting all retailers. There is a turkey shortage now, especially for fresh product. I think the last couple of weeks leading up to Christmas, customers are going to realize when they go into stores that the fresh turkeys are not there, they are not available like they typically are.”

Data from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency shows, as of Dec. 11, there were 61 infected farms in B.C. while 22 have been released from quarantine.

The majority of recent cases have been in the Fraser Valley with 53 new infected premises since Nov. 16, which has outpaced efforts to destroy all the infected birds, creating a backlog.

In a weekly avian influenza update for the B.C. industry, the CFIA says, as of Dec. 11, there are 16 farms waiting to be “depopulated,” which is done by pumping gas into barns.

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“To facilitate depopulation, CFIA has secured a 90-tonne CO2 storage tank that will be based in Agassiz. This will allow CO2 trucks to be refilled in Agassiz instead of driving to Fort Saskatchewan to refill, shortening the turnaround time by two days. In addition, the BC Ministry of Agriculture’s Emergency Operations Centre is working to secure industry destruction teams from out of the province to assist with the depopulation.”

In a statement to CityNews, the CFIA says barns on infected premises with birds that are showing clinical signs of avian influenza or dying are the first priority to minimize animal suffering and the risk of disease spread.

“The destruction of birds in these barns is being completed by the CFIA, which has 350 people in western Canada working on the avian influenza response. For other barns on infected premises, the CFIA is working closely with the poultry industry and the Province of BC to identify resources and options for timely, humane destruction and disposal.”

Industry insiders tell CityNews they have never seen an avian flu outbreak like this before.

One turkey farmer — who wished to remain anonymous — says it is incredibly tough on poultry producers who rely on revenue from this season to get through the rest of the year. For some, half of their annual income is now gone.

There is government compensation for quarantine and culled birds, but the local sector is still on track to lose millions of dollars from lost birds and the months it will take to get back into production.

The farmer adds there is also an emotional toll when dealing with the deaths of so many of their animals — even though they are raised to be eaten, they are humanely processed and it is difficult to watch flocks be eradicated.

The first case of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in British Columbia this year was on April 13.

The H5N1 strain of the virus has also been spreading in other parts of North America and Europe. It can easily spread to commercial poultry flocks that come into contact with infected wild migratory birds.

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