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Preparation Pays Off: When AI was found on a Saskatchewan breeder operation, the industry was ready


January 23, 2008
By Jim Knisley and Kristy Nudds

Topics

It was the most unlikely of situations in one of the most unlikely of places.

When Jim Glenn, owner of Pedigree Poultry, went to his broiler-breeder
farm near Silton, Sask., 40 kilometres north of Regina on Sept. 23, he
found a situation everyone dreads. The birds were very sick.

It was the most unlikely of situations in one of the most unlikely of places.

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When Jim Glenn, owner of Pedigree Poultry, went to his broiler-breeder farm near Silton, Sask., 40 kilometres north of Regina on Sept. 23, he found a situation everyone dreads. The birds were very sick.

Tenille Knezacek, Saskatchewan’s poultry extension scientist, was called in.  When she suspected that the birds could be infected with avian influenza (AI) she notified provincial veterinarian Dr. Bob Goodhope, who felt the situation was high-risk and notified the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). 

The CFIA collected tissue and blood from the birds and sent them to the National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease (NCFAD) and the Prairie Diagnostics Lab.  Initial lab tests concluded that it was avian influenza, although it took another day to determine by PCR testing that the virus was not an H5 type.  These initial results showed also showed a negative result for H7 but more sophisticated testing confirmed that it was the highly pathogenic form of H7N3.

Dr. Sandra Stephens, veterinary program officer, Saskatoon District Office, CFIA, says that early notification of a suspected disease problem is crucial.  She praised Glenn for his quick notification.  “Some farmers may think that maybe it’s not so bad, and wait to call someone in,” she says.

 She says the evidence shows that the disease broke in a spiker barn.  Roosters were moved at the same time into layer barns, where the disease affected the largest number of birds. “The industry needs to be aware that spiker roosters are a risk component,” she says.

Pedigree Poultry was immediately quarantined, control measures were put in place and quarantine zones were established. The birds were destroyed by CO2 gassing on Sept. 29th and depopulation of the barns took place over the next few days. 

Although composting of infected carcasses is “useful” Stephens says due to lack of floor space in the layer barns composting would be difficult, so the birds were buried in a deep pit in the clay-based soil on the farm property. To prevent disease spread, the carcasses were left in the barn for several days to “decrease the viral load” and wetted down to prevent feathers and dust becoming airborne, says Stephens.

Fortunately, says Stephens, the infected farm was isolated from other farms. Several backyard flocks are located within three kilometres and the closest commercial operation is nearly 10 kilometres away. Stephens says the incident is a good reminder to industry that “AI can happen anywhere. Biosecurity is a 365 day a year process.”

Following protocol, the CFIA canvassed farms within one and three kilometres to assess whether poultry was present, later moving out to a 10-kilometre zone.  Questionnaires to determine potential risk factors were completed.   

Blood from the birds on this farm was sampled for evidence of the virus or sero-conversion.  One of the backyard flocks was quarantined due to its close proximity (within one kilometre) but this was only a precautionary measure, says Stephens.

The CFIA also did a 21-day trace-back for all inputs, visitors and exports on and off the farm.  Stephens says that luckily Pedigree Poultry was the only poultry client of the feed company used and that the hatchery truck, which picks up eggs twice a week, hadn’t been to the farm in a couple of days. She noted that both the feed company and the hatchery practised biosecurity measures.

Stephens says it’s hard to determine how the virus entered the barn.  Biosecurity was practised on the part of Glenn.  The water source, ozone-treated well water, was tested but determined to be negative for AI. Stephens says that “it’s important to look at the water source as a possible source of contamination.  One day of the water system not working is enough.”

The infected farm is located near Regina Beach, a known migratory flyway for waterfowl.  It’s likely that wild birds are the source but “we may never know what the source of the virus is,” says Stephens.

Two years of hard work and preparation paid great dividends in keeping the disease isolated to one farm.  The Saskatchewan poultry industry was ready for AI.

After the same strain of AI crippled the British Columbia poultry industry in 2003, Saskatchewan, like other provinces, has been working to ensure that emergency plans were developed, refined and that all producers knew what to do.

“It was really helpful to have a game plan in place,” says Clinton Monchuk of the Chicken Farmers of Saskatchewan. 

The Saskatchewan Poultry Industry Emergency Management Team (SPIEMT) was formed in May of 2006, which includes members from each board, government, and producers.

Prior to the AI incident in September, SPIEMT had met seven times with the CFIA and provincial agricultural representatives working on communication, key media messaging, and emergency manuals for producers.

They drafted and redrafted their plans. They made certain that all the producers in the province were aware of what had to be done in an AI outbreak and how the various participants would respond.

In February 2007 the committee carried out a tabletop exercise with the CFIA to identify weaknesses in preparation.  They worked extensively with the national agencies, with CFIA, and with the provincial government and its
departments.

Dr. Stephens also spoke at many producer meetings, says Knezacek. She says the exercises with the CFIA increased with intensity and that communications was the focus of preparation planning.

“Communications is key,” says Joy Smith of the Saskatchewan Egg Producers. Ensuring that the information was accurate and flowed freely was absolutely critical, she says.

Information was communicated horizontally across the industry and to the government agencies and vertically to the media and the public.

“We were really quick to make sure people were in the know,” said Monchuk. “Communications planning also made sure that we were preaching from the same book.” He says this provided a clear, consistent message to media and decreased consumer fears.

Earlier information gathering by the industry also proved invaluable. The location of the farm was known because the legal description of every registered poultry farm in the province is required by the producer groups. Zoning and mapping information was provided to the CFIA.

There were also site plans for the farm. “It really helped,” says Smith.
Another key was the help provided by the national agencies. The national agencies had been working together on AI response and their ability to co-ordinate communications paid off.

“The national agencies were very, very helpful,” says Smith.

In addition to dealing with the media and ensuring that communications were open and consistent the national agencies also helped Saskatchewan work out alternative transportation logistics to limit the market disruptions.

“They did a lot of good work, great work,” says Smith.

“I can’t praise them enough,” said Monchuk. “ They made sure we were asking the right questions and delivered the right message to producers.”

Joy said the national system itself really helped. The situation, the co-ordinated response and all the resources available drove home just how important having a national supply-managed system is.

The province’s two processing plants, Lilydale and Prairie Pride, and Star Egg,
the province’s egg grader, also did exemplary work.

They worked overtime, they arranged for and met the extra demands placed upon them and they worked with the producers to ensure the industry continued to operate, says Smith.

“They did a tremendous job,” she says.

Smith says that the work of Knezacek was also tremendous.  “The producers know Tennille and they trust her.”

Although Glenn is a SPIEMT committee member, “it by no means makes him an expert on how to deal with it,” says Smith. “Everybody who has been through this now understands this is extremely stressful. It is like watching your house burn down.”

She stressed the importance of seeking out fellow producers for support to prevent feeling isolated. They should also be aware that while H7N3 is a poultry, not human, disease, there is a human toll.

The industry learned that it needs to have a cleaning and disinfecting plan in place, and have a section on this in the producer manuals that not only lists procedures but also includes a list of products approved to eliminate avian influenza, and where they can purchase them.

Smith says it would also have to address the question of labour, which has proven to be a problem.

Knezacek says that proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) should be on hand and that occupational health and safety concerns need to be considered.

Those involved with the cleanup had to have an influenza vaccine, which limited the number of people available and they received Tamiflu.

The Saskatchewan incident drives home how important biosecurity is and how important it is to call in a veterinarian if the producer suspects that there is
a problem.

“It never hurts to call in,” said Knezacek.  “If something happens that is out of the norm, just call.”

“There must be more talk about compensation,” says Smith.

Federal compensation for egg producers and broiler breeders needs to be increased to adequately cover production levels.  “Lack of compensation prevents transparency,” she says.

There is also a need for adequate funding to cover cleanup and disinfecting costs – which is left up to the affected producer – and to ensure that supplies and personnel are available when needed.

Nobody thinks of all the costs until it happens, she says. SPIEMT’s funding partners have contributed $100,000 to help Glenn cover the cost of cleaning and disinfecting. 

“We see this as an ad-hoc measure that industry needed to take to help this individual immediately,” says Monchuk, “But, we hope that in future, we can work with both provincial and federal governments to come to a co-operative approach to ensuring that animal disease emergencies are effectively dealt with, from start
to finish.”

Monchuk says that the money should help cover the wet cleaning costs.  However, Glenn has been cited as saying that the total bill will be between $200,000 and $250,000, which he can’t afford.