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Since December, when avian flu was first detected in Newfoundland, the virus has spread to seven provinces.Bebeto Matthews/The Associated Press

The first birds were found dead in Saint-Claude, a small town in rural Quebec. A few days later, at another Brome Lake Ducks farm site about an hour away, the birds stopped laying eggs. And a week after that, at Brome Lake’s facility in nearby Wotton, the birds there fell sick, too.

Each time, the tests came back positive: highly pathogenic avian influenza. This week, the company – Canada’s largest duck supplier, with a 110-year-old history – announced it was temporarily shuttering all 13 of its sites because of the bird flu.

The company is not alone. Since December, when avian flu was first detected in Newfoundland, the virus has spread to seven provinces, raising alarm within Canada’s poultry and egg industries that together produce $4.9-billion worth of products each year.

Outbreak of avian flu hits farms in Alberta, B.C.

Shortly after the Brome Lake news, one of its main competitors, King Cole Ducks in Ontario, Canada’s other major duck supplier, said four of its 17 sites are under quarantine, too. Poultry farmers across the country, meanwhile, are scrambling to contain the effects of a virus that has already had devastating effects around the world.

“It’s an extremely sad situation,” said Angela Anderson, general manager of Brome Lake Ducks.

Since the first detection of the H5N1 virus strain there this month, more than 200,000 birds have been euthanized using CO2 gas. An additional 400,000 eggs in incubation were also ordered destroyed. All of the company’s breeding stock – “all of the grandparents and parents,” Ms. Anderson said – was put down.

“When you see the CO2 trucks go by your office and you know that they’re headed another 30 seconds into the barn – it’s just heart-wrenching,” she said. “It’s terrible.”

Since late last year, avian influenza has spread rapidly around the globe, most notably in Europe and Asia. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 28 million poultry birds in the United States have been infected.

And while Canada has been hit in the past (most recently in 2015), the current H5N1 strain appears to be much more transmissible.

“This one is much more severe in terms of spread, not in terms of disease severity,” said Shayan Sharif, a professor in the veterinary college at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

He said the current virus was likely introduced to Canada by migratory birds in late 2021. And while it’s not expected to pose a risk to human health – or to food safety – it’s certain to have economic repercussions.

“It’s a devastating disease for farmers,” Dr. Sharif said. “This is going to create significant amounts of stress and distress on their livelihoods and their lives.”

That impact hasn’t been limited to ducks.

An estimated 700,000 birds across Canada – including broiler chickens, laying hens, turkeys and ducks – have already died from avian influenza in recent months – either through infection or euthanasia, said Lisa Bishop-Spencer, a spokeswoman for Chicken Farmers of Canada.

She emphasized that the avian virus does not pose a threat to food safety. “This is a flock health issue, not a food safety issue,” Ms. Bishop-Spencer said.

Canada produces about one billion kilograms of chicken each year. Given the relative size of the chicken industry and the birds being a supply managed product, she said, the overall impact will likely be manageable – and supply and prices will likely remain stable.

In a statement, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said it is working with provincial governments, the agriculture industry and other partners to control the virus and limit its impact on the industry.

Still, for the country’s relatively small duck industry, this could potentially be crippling.

“While the avian flu is a nightmare for chickens and eggs, it’s Armageddon for ducks,” said Sylvain Charlebois, director of Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

“Lac Brome and King Cole are the backbone of the industry,” he said. “If they go down … that’s basically it.”

Ms. Anderson echoed the sentiment. This week, she had to personally tell the company’s 300 employees that they are temporarily laid off.

Even if the company starts rebuilding right away, she said it will take at least eight months before they can have ducks ready for the market.

“We haven’t had time to calculate how much this is going to cost,” she said. Still, she added, this much is clear: “We’ve been devastated.”

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