The world is addicted to chicken. So is the bird flu virus.


By Megan Durisin and Elizabeth Elkin, Bloomberg

The bird flu outbreak ravaging global poultry flocks is now the worst since records began, driving a spike in the price of eggs, threatening free-range chicken and risking long-term impacts to animal health.

The avian flu season traditionally begins each October as migratory birds shed infected droppings or saliva while leaving cool areas of the Northern Hemisphere. But this year cases spread rapidly in warmer months, supercharging the virus and prompting mass culls.

Poultry losses since October are almost 70% above last year’s pace, hitting 16.1 million by Dec. 1, according to the World Organisation for Animal Health. Before then, more than 138 million birds were lost in the 12 months through September, more than the prior five years combined, WOAH said.

In the US, UK and elsewhere it’s led to concerns over seasonal specialties such as roast turkey dinners for Thanksgiving and Christmas. But poultry is a mainstay of global diets, and culls are curbing supplies of products from eggs to foie gras, exacerbating the food inflation that’s hit consumer budgets this year. With vaccines potentially years away, farmers are sounding the alarm.

“This is much, much worse than it’s ever been and I think it’s caught everybody by surprise,” said Mark Gorton, managing director of Traditional Norfolk Poultry in eastern England, which has lost 15% of its flocks since September. “This isn’t just a UK problem, it’s a worldwide problem. We’ve got to sort it out.”

Some 35 billion birds are stocked on farms around the world to meet demand for affordable chicken that has doubled since 1999. This year’s cost-of-living crisis boosted sales further as consumers ditch beef for cheaper options.

The outbreak accelerated just as farmers grappled with rising energy and feed bills. With growth under pressure, global poultry production will probably gain about 1% this year and next, trailing historic norms of 2.5%, said Nan-Dirk Mulder, animal-protein specialist at Rabobank.

Bird flu can spread to tractors or feed and is often fatal to farmed birds, with flocks culled as soon as one falls ill. Chickens grown for meat can be less prone to infection as they are slaughtered after about six weeks, but bigger, older birds and egg-laying hens have been severely affected.

The effect has been to double US retail egg costs in a year, with oven-ready chicken prices in the UK up by a quarter or more.

It’s also a global problem. Malaysia is importing eggs, as feed prices force local farmers to cut back. French farms lost millions of ducks to the flu the past two winters. Minnesota-based Hormel Foods Corp. — which raises turkeys for lunchmeat and roasts — expects output to fall through at least early next year. Importers often restrict purchases from infected regions.


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