Grim reality for businesses left to pick up the pieces after bird flu outbreak

Grim reality for businesses left to pick up the pieces after bird flu outbreak

In short:

Poultry farmers are being required to kill tens of thousands of their chickens to stop the spread of bird flu.

The industry says it gets minimal financial support from government.

What’s next?

Victoria’s chief veterinary officer says farms infected with avian influenza need to be in quarantine for at least three months.

As Victorian farmers continue to battle the nation’s largest-ever outbreak of bird flu, the business owners who have lost their poultry are facing a grim recovery period.

More than a million chickens have been killed in south-western Victoria since May to combat avian influenza, in line with national biosecurity protocols.

Seven farms near Meredith and one near Terang have been found to have infected birds.

Avian influenza has also been detected at two commercial poultry farms near Sydney, and one in the ACT.

Linda Fahy, Agriculture Victoria’s regional manager for animal health and wellbeing for south-west Victoria, said compensation for livestock losses was available for farmers who were required to cull animals due to emergency diseases.

A farm near Terang was found to have a different strain of avian influenza called H7N9.(ABC South West Victoria: Jean Bell)

There is no other financial support available from the state government for businesses that will be without an income for months or years while their flocks rebuild to a point where they can re-enter the egg supply chain.

“Unfortunately, disaster recovery funding arrangements don’t apply to biosecurity emergencies,” Ms Fahy said.

“There is no compensation for consequential loss, loss of market or production loss.

“Farmers and businesses might have individual [private] insurance arrangements including income protection.”

Long recovery

Victoria’s chief veterinary officer Graeme Cooke said once a farm became infected with avian influenza, it would need to be in quarantine for at least three months.

“Every farm is different, [quarantine time] depends on size and scale,” Dr Cooke said.

“The first stage is to remove the infected birds and prevent the spread and then the farms go through a period of cleaning and disinfection — then they need to be empty for a period of time as well.

“The shortest possible time is three to four months, but in many cases it may be much longer than that due to the scale of the operation required.”

All seven farms affected by bird flu have been put into quarantine, including this property near Meredith.(ABC News: Rochelle Kirkham)

Farmers are compensated by the state government for birds that are killed during this time, but after that point are left to rebuild their businesses without fiscal assistance.

Premium egg-laying chickens range from four months to two years old and are valued at approximately $25 per bird, according to industry estimates.

After this, the hens produce lower-quality eggs, which decreases the chickens’ monetary value and therefore how much compensation is paid to the farmer.

Agriculture Victoria would not confirm this with figure with the ABC, but said “the [compensation for] livestock was calculated based on farm-gate value, and it’s determined as if they were disease-free.”

“We take into account lots of different factors — age, sex, breed, body condition, live weight and also production records, and any other relevant factors at the time,” Ms Fahy said.

Is protection possible?

Australia has a nationally agreed response plan and cost-sharing arrangements in place to respond to animal diseases, including avian influenza.

The cost of the clean-up of bird flu is billed to the poultry industry through levies.

Dr Cooke said, despite vaccines for emergency animal diseases being available, inoculating Australia’s chicken population was unlikely to be an effective management or prevention tool.

“This is a virus that changes a lot, and very rapidly,” Dr Cooke said.

Agriculture Victoria staff on site at an egg farm in Meredith managing an outbreak of bird flu.(ABC News: Rochelle Kirkham)

“While there are some avian influenza vaccines available in the world, they’re not very effective and it takes a long time to get a vaccinated population.

“The national approach, and global approach, is to find the disease and remove it.

“At the moment, we have no other evidence that would leave us to even contemplate vaccines at present.”

Dr Cooke said vaccinating could also encourage the disease to further circulate among the country’s bird population.

Victoria’s chief veterinarian Dr Graeme Cooke has confirmed more than one million birds will be killed to prevent the spread of avian influenza in the state.(ABC Melbourne: Christian Stella)

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