Bird Flu Silences Spring in British Columbia

ABBOTSFORD, British Columbia, Canada, April 23, 2004 (ENS) - The poultry farms in this Fraser Valley community are silent now, and the farmers who made their living from the millions of chickens that once filled the valley with their cries are hoping their promised payments from the federal government arrive soon.

The avian flu that was first discovered in British Columbia on February 19 has spread to 36 farms plus 10 backyard flocks as of today, most in Abbotsford and one at a farm on 176th Street and 16th Avenue in the nearby town of Cloverdale.

Testing continues in the valley. To date, over 200 farms have tested negative for avian influenza.

British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell has called the outbreak an emergency and engaged the full resources of the Provincial Emergency Program, and even Prime Minister Paul Martin is involved.

“We are taking this action following discussions with stakeholders and with an understanding that resources should be in place to deal with any scenario that may arise,” said Campbell. “I have also been in contact with the Prime Minister and we agree that resources and ongoing co-operation between all levels of government are essential to eradicate avian influenza as quickly as is possible.”


British Columbia workers are dealing with millions of chickens at risk for avian influenza. (Photo courtesy Vancouver Humane Society)
This H7 avian virus is not the same virus which swept 10 Asian countries earlier this year, but it is contagious enough so that the federal government has ordered that 19 million birds be destroyed.

This virus is designated H7N3, and two different forms - one of high pathogenicity and one of low pathogenicity were found on the same farm. Both forms are still infecting birds in the valley. Low and high pathogenicity refers to how the virus behaves in birds.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CIFA), the agency responsible for eradicating the disease, says the risk to human health remains low. Although the H7N3 virus has not been known to cause illness in humans, every possible precaution continues to be taken in order to protect human health regardless of the virus' pathogenicity, the agency says.

To rid the province of this contagious disease, CIFA officials have decided to kill all of the poultry in the Fraser Valley - a number estimated at 19 million. Birds that test positive are being destroyed, but so are birds that test negative. On Wednesday, officials from federal provincial and local authorities agreed on large Abbotsford dairy farm as a central site for the composting of birds that test negative for avian influenza.

Central composting is being used to provide increased capacity and is in addition to incineration and on-farm composting currently being used in the massive disposal effort.

The choice of the central composting location followed full discussions involving the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the Fraser Health Authority, poultry industry representatives, the ministries of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries and Water, Land and Air Protection and the City of Abbotsford.

The site, located on agricultural land near Highway 11, is well situated for the composting. It is also large enough to handle necessary machinery and the material to be composted.

The location and composting operations meet or exceed all health and regulatory requirements. Ag-BagO sealed environmental composting bags will be used in the controlled composting process, to prevent the production of objectionable odors.

The process will be as sanitary as officials can make it and at the end of three months it will produce compost that can be used to grow crops.

Any flock that tests negative for avian influenza will be eligible for human consumption, CIFA officials say. This will minimize disposal requirements and will allow producers to salvage value from birds sent to slaughter for human consumption. The birds will be sold for meat across Canada.


Abbotsford poultry barns are silent now. (Photo credit unknown)
Birds from non-infected farms can be transported alive for slaughter at a slaughter facility. The barn where the birds are to die is encased in plastic sheeting. Carbon dioxide gas is introduced into the barn to euthanize the birds.

Twenty-four hours later, carcasses and other organic material in the barn – like manure, wood chips and straw – are collected and transported to the secure central composting site.

Additional wood chips, sawdust and straw are added to speed composting. All material for composting is sealed in environmental and recyclable composting bags that limit potential odor.

All material is composted and cured for one to three months at the secure site, which is supervised continuously. At the end of this period, fully composted material is ready for use as organic fertilizer.

Flocks that test positive for bird flu will be euthanized on the premises and sent for disposal. Strict biosecurity procedures will be followed and enforced to prevent further virus spread, and trucks of carcasses will be securely sealed during transportation. Frequent and thorough cleaning and disinfection of all personnel, vehicles and equipment will be required to minimize the potential transmission of the virus from infected farms to premises currently free of bird flu.

Producers will be compensated by the federal government. Under the Health of Animals Act, owners will be eligible for compensation at market value for each bird ordered destroyed, up to a maximum amount set by the Compensation for Destroyed Animals Regulations.

After all Fraser Valley birds are dead and all premises have been cleaned and disinfected a monitoring phase will begin. Sentinel, or trial, birds will be placed on previously infected premises to make certain that the measures taken have effectively eliminated any residual risk.

Once it is proven that no traces of the virus remain, producers can begin to restock their premises.

The Vancouver Humane Society says the conditions in which chickens live on industrial poultry farms make them vulnerable to bird flu. "They are fed a carefully constructed diet, complete with antibiotics for disease control, and are kept in sheds with near-continuous artificial light. They spend their entire short lives eating, sleeping and defecating in the same, confined space and are sent to slaughter at between 34 and 42 days old," the organization says.

"If free-range and organic chicken farms in the BC’s Fraser Valley are less affected by avian flu than intensive operators, it suggests they may be less vulnerable."

The British Columbia poultry industry has said little about this scourge. Producers are too busy depopulating, cleaning and waiting for the results of CIFA's investigation to tell them how they might avoid another disaster.