Minimal cases in Northern California, but fears of a spread shut down shows through the summer
Summer is a time for fairs, and fairs are all about livestock showing. But at this year’s Sonoma County Fair and Heirloom Expo, attendees hoping to enjoy the broad range of poultry exhibited at their respective shows were met with signs proclaiming that, due to an outbreak of Newcastle disease, there would be no poultry shows this year.
This was a pattern to be repeated all over the state, as fears of the virulent and deadly disease kept producers home and tucked safely away. At the Sonoma County Fair, 4-H kids who had spent their year preparing to show their birds made due with exhibiting informational posters and poultry artwork in lieu of the birds themselves.
According to the University of California, Virulent Newcastle disease (also known as Exotic Newcastle disease) is a highly contagious and deadly virus in birds. The virus is found in respiratory discharges and feces. Clinical symptoms in birds include sneezing, coughing, nasal discharge, green watery diarrhea, depression, neck twisting, circling, muscle tremors, paralysis, decreased egg production, swelling around eyes and neck and sudden death.
Virulent Newcastle disease is not a food safety concern. According to the University of California, no human cases of Newcastle disease have ever occurred from eating poultry products. Properly cooked poultry products are safe to eat. In very rare instances, people working directly with sick birds can become infected, but symptoms are usually very mild, and limited to conjunctivitis and/or influenza-like symptoms. Infection is easily prevented by using standard personal protective equipment.
The current outbreak facing California began in May 2018 in Los Angeles County, and it spread quickly to San Bernardino and Riverside counties. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) immediately placed a quarantine on the three counties preventing movement of birds or eggs in or out, but birds continued to move and the disease continued to spread. By April 2019, 409 cases had been confirmed with over 100,000 backyard and 1.2 million commercial birds being euthanized due to exposure to the disease.
On March 15, 2019, a chicken in Redwood City was confirmed to have the disease and was euthanized by a veterinarian, bringing the outbreak firmly north.
According to the USDA, Newcastle disease spreads when healthy birds come in direct contact with bodily fluids from sick birds. The disease affects all species of birds and can infect and cause death even in vaccinated poultry. The virus can travel on manure, egg flats, crates, other farming materials or equipment and people who have picked up the virus on their clothing, shoes or hands.
To help keep disease from spreading, the USDA recommends restricting access to your property and your birds, cleaning and disinfecting equipment that comes in contact with your birds or their droppings, including cages and tools and avoiding visiting farms or other households with poultry.
If you are looking to purchase birds, buy from a reputable hatchery or dealer, and request certification from suppliers that the birds were legally imported or come from U.S. stock and were healthy before shipment, the USDA recommended. Also, maintain records of all sales and shipments of flocks. Keep new birds separated from your other birds for at least 30 days. Keep young and old birds and birds of different species and from different sources apart.
If your birds are sick or dying, contact your agricultural extension office/agent, local veterinarian, local animal health diagnostic laboratory or the State veterinarian. Or, call the USDA toll free at 1-866-536-7593.
Franchesca Duval of Alchemist Farm in Sebastopol ships birds and eggs all over the country. While she is concerned about the outbreak, she said biosecurity of her farm and birds has always been a strong priority.
“From the beginning of our farm business we have maintained tight biosecurity in the case of an outbreak just like this,” she said. “We do not open our gates or offer tours of our farm/hatchery. When we host chicken/quail keeping classes, all participants are required to wear special booties and are kept 250 feet away from any of our chicken pastures. Folks who are driving from Southern California have to park off of the farm to attend classes in case there are any microbes hiding out in their tire treads.
“We are a closed farm, which means we do not bring in any chicks or adult birds from other breeders/farms just in case they are carrying diseases within them,” she continued. “When we need to freshen up our genetics, we order fertile hatching eggs, which then are treated with antibiotics and then incubated in a special way to ensure proper biosecurity.”
While biosecurity has always been a priority, Duval has seen some impacts from the disease on her business.
“I ship hatching eggs and chicks all over the United States, right now because of the Newcastle issue in Southern California, I am unable to ship into Florida because there is a general ban on all shipments of eggs and poultry from California into their state,” she said. “The same situation is happening in Southern California. It is currently illegal to ship hatching eggs or chicks into ZIP codes 90000-93500 because those ZIP codes get routed through LAX, which could be a possible contamination site.“
While Duval has always exhibited at the Heirloom Expo, and missed participating this year, she believes it’s better to be safe than sorry.
“It was the right call to cancel the show because while we are hundreds of miles away from the outbreak, all it takes is one person not playing by the rules to spread pathogens knowingly or unknowingly,” she said. “The disease (spread) when folks were illegally selling adult birds from Southern California. Thankfully, the purchasers recognized the birds were sick, turned them over to the proper authorities and the rest of the home flock had to be euthanized as a precaution from further spreading of the disease.”
Duval said to get through the current crisis, every chicken owner from the smallest backyard flock to the largest commercial operation must be willing to cooperate and sacrifice to end the outbreak.
“The issue has not resolved because in Southern California folks are unwilling to tell the authorities about their flocks — they want to protect them and do not want to have them euthanized,” she said. “There is currently no end date for the quarantine/ban being lifted. We need three months of no instances being reported. We were at two months a few weeks ago and then it popped up in a feed store in Southern California, again from folks not playing by the rules so the clock is now reset and we have to wait another three months.
“Some breeders ignore that and smuggle hatching eggs labeled as something else to customers, but I refuse to do that because I recognize the severity of the situation and what it could mean for the greater poultry industry/food system in California. I want to do my part to make sure they get a lid on the situation, which has been going on for more than a year and a half now,” Duval concluded.