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Tab for fighting Oxford County bird flu outbreak tops $5 million

By Megan Stacey, The London Free Press

A tractor blocks a lane way leading into an Oxford County farm where Canada Food Inspection Agency inspectors were on the scene. (Free Press file photo)

A tractor blocks a lane way leading into an Oxford County farm where Canada Food Inspection Agency inspectors were on the scene. (Free Press file photo)

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WOODSTOCK  - 

It cost taxpayers more than $5 million to fight a deadly outbreak of bird flu that menaced Southwestern Ontario’s poultry industry this spring, documents obtained by Postmedia News show.

The outbreak that surfaced and whipped through Oxford County, a major poultry producer, sent shudders down the industry’s spine but was ultimately contained to just three farms, while the same deadly strain of the virus — H5N2 avian influenza — decimated turkey and chicken flocks in the U.S. Midwest.

About 80,000 birds, mainly turkeys, were wiped out in the Southwestern Ontario outbreak, with federal regulators slapping a strict quarantine on dozens of farms located in two control zones radiating out 10 kilometres each from the first two infected turkey operations in Oxford.

Figures obtained under a freedom-of-information request show the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which takes the lead on threats like avian flu, spent months and $5.4 million to contain and clean up after the highly contagious disease, which can lay waste entire flocks of birds in mere days.

Of the $5.4 million spent, nearly half — $2.5 million — was for compensation for the three farms infected, payments for which were still being processed at the time of the information-access request.

It cost almost $1.5  million more to compost the dead birds.

Given the high stakes, producers and industry experts say they’re not surprised by the financial hit.

“Well, it’s a large number,” said Dan Veldman, an Embro-area egg farmer.

But it’s no mystery where that money went, he said.

“When I saw pictures from the (infected) farms, and saw what was happening there, with the amount of resources, I can see where it added up,” he said.

Tents, cleaning supplies and bright yellow hazardous material suits were visible at the commercial turkey farm where the disease first broke out for months after it was declared.

The stench from the fallout lingered for weeks, noticed by drivers on nearby Highway 2.

At the time, many in the industry fretted the outbreak could spread, exacting a toll on a huge industry that includes not only poultry but egg production.

The security of having a strong federal food regulator to address the outbreak was essential to keep the industry afloat, Veldman said.

“At the end of the day, it’s about consumer confidence. And our egg sales did not drop at all. So as far as consumer confidence, we have no problem there at all.”

Efforts to contain the outbreak and protect producers and consumers were extensive, including a London-area command centre set up to help tackle the fallout.

Ontario’s Agriculture Ministry sent Csaba Varga, a veterinarian who specializes in disease prevention, to the command centre to help.

“I was helping the CFIA to trace (the virus). Basically, we had information on the infected farms, if they got feed from other farms, or if they sent some eggs to a hatchery, we had to follow up with those companies,” he said.

“We had to follow up with the dead stock company, to see which farms they visited. We wanted to figure out if the avian influenza infected flocks infected (other) birds, and just to control the spread of disease.”

That painstaking work was essential to determine if the disease had been spread to other farms through contaminated equipment or products.

By far the costliest process was paying farmers whose flocks were destroyed. Under the Health of Animals Act, they’re entitled to a certain amount for each turkey or chicken killed. Those values ranged from $60 for a chicken raised for egg production, to upwards of $1,000 for primary breeder poultry.

Other farmers in the containment zones had to get CFIA permits to move any people, vehicles, supplies or products on and off their property.

“You’ve got to remember, every farm in the zone . . . they all had to have inspectors go there and check things out, so you know what, it’s a huge amount of resources,” Veldman said.

That strict lockdown likely helped keep the virus at bay, observers say.

That’s pretty much priceless to producers in Oxford, one of Ontario’s biggest poultry production regions.

Ray Nickel, head of the British Columbia Poultry Association – an organization that has weathered several avian flu outbreaks – said his industry has learned the value of a quick response.

“Whether it’s avian influenza or some other catastrophe, the quicker you can rally your resources and understand what you’re dealing with, the quicker you can come up with solutions,” he said.

B.C. is coming up on one year since its latest avian flu outbreak last winter that claimed 245,000 birds.

Nickel said given what he’s seen during outbreaks, the $5.4-million cost in Ontario “makes sense.”

“In our case, (CFIA) probably has 100 people on the ground, in their emergency operations centre, and at first it was going around the clock. Then they stepped it back to an 8-hour day,” he said.

Veldman said the CFIA response, and the strict regulations, taught an important lesson.

“You’re only as good as your weakest link. We needed to work together as an industry to make sure that we have our (biosecurity systems) in place.”

megan.stacey@sunmedia.ca

THE HIT

Breakdown of CFIA costs to fight the outbreak:

Salaries: $932,486

Compensation for farmers: $2,548,000+

Blood testing: $20,181

Freight and postage: $12,745

Travel: $321,716

Materials and supplies: $195,965

Equipment repair: $4,560

Composting infected birds: $1,419,107

The toll: About 53,000 turkeys, 27,000 broiler chickens