40 million birds destroyed. How has the Avian flu affected Rochester retail and restaurants?
Another round of the avian flu erupted in February causing more than 40 million birds in North America to be infected and destroyed. This round of the avian flu has been part of the impact to
ROCHESTER — Consumers who flock to grocery stores and restaurants for poultry will have to pay more and expect less this summer than ever before.
The current outbreak of the avian flu has caused more than 40 million chickens, turkeys, wild birds and even wild mammals to be infected with the virus. This has created a large disruption to the poultry industry as reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The avian flu outbreak began Feb. 8, when the virus was first detected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at a commercial turkey meat plant in Dubois County, Ind. Since then there have been 372 cases of avian flu detected in commercial and non-commercial farms, as reported by the USDA.
As of June 16, 2022, Minnesota has had 2.99 million birds infected over a three month period since the first case was detected. The first case detected in Minnesota was also the largest discovery to date. The case was identified on March 25 in Meeker County at a commercial turkey farm where 287,507 turkey’s became infected with the avian flu.
The Minnesota Board of Animal Health has been tracking cases and data within the state. As of June 16, 2022, there have been 80 total cases, 51 of which commercial turkey farms in Minnesota have had infections and needed to shut down to quarantine. Only one case has been reported in the Rochester area, on a commercial turkey farm in Dodge County on April 3, where 20,971 birds were infected by the flu.
Commercial flocks infected with avian flu are the ones that have the largest impact on the food supply market for grocers and restaurants. For grocery stores in Rochester, there is no problem in acquiring poultry products for their shelves. Jason Oudal, owner of Silver Lake Foods, explains what the real challenges currently are.
“Poultry products are not hard to get from suppliers, it’s just more expensive than anything else right now," said Oudal. "Just like everything else with inflation, you’re paying more than usual without seeing a decline in prices with chicken and turkey. Eggs are at least the supply there but prices are surging there as well."
On the restaurant side, rising prices are also a challenge and the availability of certain poultry meats is starting to see some scarcity.
Derek Jensen on the "wild west" of dealing with turkey availability:
Derek Jensen, head chef of Chester’s Kitchen and Bar, talked about what meats he’s seen become less available since the avian outbreak began.
“The availability of the whole birds, which is near and dear to us, has not been an issue. We have had trouble getting eggs at a cheaper price and chicken breasts have been the other big one," said Jensen. "Just recently, availability in turkey breast has been terrible. Lately we've had to get the whole bird, which comes in similar to the whole chickens, and now we're cutting it off the carcass to have turkey and chicken breast at the demand we need."
Prices for poultry have greatly increased in the past few months, let alone the last year.
Poultry prices are up 3% from March to April this year, according to the USDA Economic Research Service. Its monthly Food Price Outlook shows that the March and April 2022 jump is a large portion of the year-over-year increase in Consumer Price Index. From April 2021 to April 2022, there was a 15.3% increase in poultry prices, with the March-to-April increase making up roughly 20% of that total.
For context of price jumps, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has data on poultry and egg price changes per month. The cost of fresh whole chicken per pound has jumped nearly 20 cents on average since February 2022, going from $1.63 per pound to $1.82 per pound in May 2022. The price per pound at $1.82 for chicken in May was the highest cost ever recorded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics since data began being recorded in 1980.
The cost for a dozen grade A eggs reached its third highest average recorded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2022 at $2.86. Back in February 2022, a dozen eggs was $2.00 on average, an 80-cent difference from the most recent data reported. The only other times the cost of a dozen eggs has been higher on average than last month was in August and September of 2015. The record high being in September 2015 at $2.96 per dozen.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has not collected any data on the prices of whole turkey since 2020.
Even with record high prices for poultry products, Jensen has been thankful for the fact his kitchen is not operating without assistance. Chester’s is one of three restaurants in Rochester that are a part of the NOVA Restaurant Group based out of Edina, Minn. Being a part of this group has helped Jensen’s kitchen inventory remain well stocked in a time when poultry meat is becoming more expensive.
“It really helps. We can tell them we're going to buy $2 million worth of chicken this year. Then they can go to the producers and say, ‘Okay, I got a guaranteed 2 million dollars worth of chicken that this restaurant will buy this year.’ And they'll give us a deviated price from somebody who's like a single operator. That works better with our budget,” said Jensen.
When these groups put in bulk orders of product for their restaurants, the partnering farms that supply these products to the demanding numbers of the order. However, if one of these farms is a commercial poultry farm that's one of the 186 that have been infected by the avian flu, it disrupts the amount of poultry meat and eggs available to meet the demands of these restaurant's orders.
Bryan Richards, emerging disease coordinator at the National Wildlife Health Center, spoke on the data that the NWHC has collected and trends seen in avian flu cases among commercial poultry and backyard flocks.
“The commercial poultry side data follows what we refer to as epidemic curve, where you see a dramatic increase in the number of detections peaking, and then coming down a mountain slope," said Richards. "This mimics what we saw in 2015; that peak, that rapid growth of the epidemic in the commercial sector and quick decline compared to wild bird populations."
Back in mid-April, the Minnesota Raptor Center made a recommendation to all Minnesota residents with bird feeders and baths not to have them out for this spring season to slow down the spread of the avian flu. On June 6, the Raptor Center advised that it was once again safe for people to put out feeders and baths in their yards as the virus numbers decreased to a safer level than in April.
Victor Hall of the Raptor Center said, “As of today (June 6), virus numbers are low, and it's safe to once again put those bird feeders up; from an avian influenza standpoint. The Raptor Center will continue to monitor and track the disease and its presence in Minnesota.”
Richards added explaining how fewer bird feeders and baths out for such a time period would help slow the spread of the avian flu among commercial flocks and wild birds too.
“The scientific literature suggests that backyard songbirds that people are feeding are only affected in a couple of instances, when there is tight geographic or physical association with a poultry facility and when scavenging birds already infected with the virus are in the same area. Small songbird type patterns have a very minor role in spreading the flu, it's the scavenging birds that create a larger spread,” said Richards.
Not only has the avian flu caused negative effects on the food market but the poultry event and exhibition shows that occur annually throughout the state. On Thursday, May 26, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health extended the statewide ban on poultry events until Friday, July 1, 2022.
Even though the avian flu has peaked with current cases and is in decline, the flu is far from over, according to Richards, and could still transfer from wild bird populations to commercial poultry. Richards says a surge of cases could still occur during migration season in the fall and cause another outbreak among poultry farms.
Richards said the commercial poultry industry may find some time to rebound over the summer, but he remains cautious for another surge of avian flu cases in the fall when the next migration season begins for wild birds.
“In 2015, we simply did not see any more outbreaks in the fall. I'm not so certain we could make that sort of a prediction this time around," said Richards. "The events in the commercial sector are waning, that's absolutely true. But that doesn't truly reflect the outbreak itself is over. It's morphing into a new stage, all these various metrics suggest a pretty good likelihood that the virus will continue to morph in the wild bird sector and could eventually spread to commercial poultry."
Given the possibility of the flu continuing to spread, this could also have an impact on the prices of poultry meats and eggs continuing to surge into record high territories if more commercial farms are infected as shared by Richards. When these flocks become infected, they are completely removed from entering any consumer market, leading to the higher prices with what’s available for restaurants and grocery stores to sell.