Skip to main content

Avian flu cases have been reported in every province except for Prince Edward Island. The outbreak is also affecting poultry in the United States, Europe and Asia.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

The European Union and 30 countries have restricted Canadian poultry and egg imports, according to an industry lobby group, as this year’s deadly avian flu infects flocks in almost every province.

The Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council said in an e-mail that the trade restrictions vary in scope, with some countries banning all imports from Canada and others limiting restrictions to affected provinces. The EU and the United States have enacted measures that apply only to products from within 10 kilometre zones around each infected farm, according to CPEPC president Jean-Michel Laurin.

About 1.37 million birds in Canada have died of the pathogen or been culled since the H5N1 strain appeared in this country in December, according to the most recent figures from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Experts stress that the food supply is safe and that the domestic supply chain is not yet under pressure. The H5N1 virus rarely infects humans, and when it does the symptoms are usually limited to conjunctivitis or mild respiratory disease.

The CFIA says on its website that it has identified 71 sites in the country where H5N1 has been detected. Cases have been reported in every province except for Prince Edward Island. The outbreak is also affecting poultry in the United States, Europe and Asia.

Avian flu spreads easily through bird feces and respiratory secretions. Migratory birds can carry the virus. The Canadian poultry industry instituted biosecurity measures to limit spread between farms after more than 16 million birds were culled in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley during a previous outbreak in 2004.

So far, the damage this year has been far less severe. In Canada’s egg sector, roughly 0.17 per cent of commercial laying hens and 0.17 per cent of commercial egg farms have been affected by the flu, according to CPEPC. In the U.S, about 8.7 per cent of commercial laying hens have been affected, the organization said.

“We don’t really know what lies ahead,” Mr. Laurin added.

Some countries have banned all Canadian poultry products – live, fresh, frozen and cooked – while others have focused on specific birds or products, he noted.

Lisa Bishop-Spencer, a spokesperson for Chicken Farmers of Canada, said only 5 to 11 per cent of domestic production is normally earmarked for export.

Investigators identified the first Canadian cases of avian flu in 1966, in Ontario, she said. After that initial outbreak, the virus wasn’t seen in this country again until 2004, in B.C.

Since that devastating wave, farmers have become better able to prepare for the virus. Biosecurity measures, such as hosing down tires and wheel wells on vehicles at farm gates, have helped contain spread between operations, Ms. Bishop-Spencer said. Farmers also take measures within their own properties, such as assigning specific boots to certain areas.

This is the first year avian flu has hit multiple provinces at the same time, Ms. Bishop-Spencer said. She added that the viral load in migratory birds is very strong this year.

“What we’re not seeing this year is ... a lot of spread from farm to farm,” she said. “It all seems to be coming in from wild birds.”

While the industry as a whole appears to be weathering the outbreak, the virus has crushed individual producers with infected flocks. In Alberta, 23 locations had been infected as of May 3, with producers losing about 600,000 birds as of April 28. Alberta has more infected sites than any other province, and the most dead birds, according to CFIA data.

In April, B.C. ordered commercial poultry farmers with more than 100 birds to move their flocks indoors until the spring migration ends in May. The province had lost 50,000 birds at two infected locations as of April 28. It now counts five infection sites.

The CFIA recommends owners of small flocks and pet birds confine them until the migration period ends, in order to prevent contact with wild birds and lower the risk of disease transmission.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.