Guam government partners with crop-killing bird flu company to rebuild the economy

Five years after the 2017 outbreak of lethal avian flu that wiped out nearly half the $150 million industry of long-breasted chickens on Guam, the government announced on Thursday it has partnered with the flu company COVIDEA to draw up a list of its most threatened operations and name the target animals on each of the 23 islands in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

A staff member in the territory’s Department of Agriculture, which oversees the poultry industry, described the effort as a “last step” in recovery. While poultry production in Guam returned to normal after the outbreak, the outbreak has scarred the business in the largest landlocked state in the United States. About 66,000 chickens died from the flu, and government records show they contracted avian influenza three more times between 2011 and 2015.

Though state officials estimate a yearly economic impact of $114 million, relatively few of the affected producers were able to recover from the economic blow. In interviews, some of those farmers said they’d adopted tough management practices and invested in technology, and they hoped the process of updating their production lines would eventually bring them out of financial hardship. The secretary of agriculture in the territory’s government said they had hoped to remain more closely connected to the industry in the future.

Tommy Edwards, operations director for Animal Production Association Inc., one of the largest chicken producers in the territories, said he hopes to identify “high-priority” operations in his company’s network. He said it would be an “advisable goal” for his company to encourage 100 percent of its business to be avian influenza-free, and that producers in some cases have decided to sell out to companies that are entering the market.

When the outbreak occurred in 2016, Pacific bird researchers feared the virus could mutate into a pathogen capable of spreading across the globe. Long-breasted chickens are particularly vulnerable because they are susceptible to disease of the throat and esophagus — called hemorrhagic disease — and routinely suffocate from the virus. Although avian influenza infected wild birds and U.S. poultry in late 2016, “the pandemic potential has not been realized,” according to a recent study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It is unclear whether avian influenza will rapidly mutate into a pathogen that efficiently spreads among humans,” the researchers wrote. “Even if some of the influenza viruses do mutate into the pandemic influenza viruses capable of spread between humans, experts do not currently believe this will be a major threat to human health.”

The Department of Agriculture is also seeking input on the proposal from affected producers, and their concerns are likely to center on the levels of assistance the contract provides. As far as the federal government is concerned, normal USDA disaster assistance in avian influenza cases is capped at $100,000. Under the proposal, producers can apply for as much as $2 million a year in matching funds.

“Many small businesses are small business on their own. So $2 million a year would do them great if they’re operating and they can work with COVIDEA to get into a program that is going to help them get back on their feet,” said state secretary of agriculture Joe Nunez. “That’s one of the last steps.”

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