The bird-flu side effect no one saw coming

You may have trouble finding your perfect, plump turkey this Thanksgiving. Major suppliers like Hillshire Farms, Pilgrim’s Pride, Sara Lee, and Tyson Foods have all reported shortages.

Eggs are in short supply too. Even many food producers and restaurants are having a hard time getting eggs. The USDA lowered its forecast for egg production this year by 5.3 percent from last year.

It’s ironic.

No sooner does the government finally take eggs off their erroneous “do-not-eat” list, people can’t find enough of them to eat.

Apparently, there aren’t enough turkeys and hens laying eggs because of an epidemic of avian flu. Two years ago, migrating water fowl imported a new strain of flu from Asia into Alaska. It then spread east and south, mutating into a deadly strain along the way called highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI).

HPAI is also highly contagious. As a precaution, many live poultry exhibits at annual state and county fairs and farm shows have been cancelled this summer and fall.

In 1983, a similar avian flu killed 17 million chickens in Pennsylvania alone–at a cost of $65 million. At the time, I worked as a hospital pathologist in Pennsylvania. I remember, as the virus spread east to New Jersey and south to Maryland and Virginia, it killed another 15 million birds and caused large declines in revenues for poultry growers.

Today’s virus is far worse.

An Iowa turkey farmer recently testified before Congress that he lost all 56,000 turkeys on his farm last May. In July, more than eight million turkeys were killed, causing losses of more than $500 billion dollars. So far this year, more than 48 million laying hens and turkeys have died from the virus. Plus, as migrating waterfowl fly south for the winter, they could continue to spread the virus.

Poultry companies have already sustained major losses, but things may only get worse this holiday season. With fewer turkeys available to sell, poultry growers like Pilgrim’s Pride and Seaboard (butterball turkeys) will suffer.

By contrast, wild turkey populations seem to be thriving.

I grew up in Massachusetts, which people often say was the home of the first Thanksgiving. However, that honor actually belongs to Berkeley Plantation, Virginia, years before. In any case, growing up in Massachusetts, I never saw a single wild turkey. But recently, when regularly visiting Massachusetts, I have seen flocks of wild turkeys crossing the roads everywhere.

In fact, last year, with my daughter visiting for Thanksgiving weekend, I drove her to see the elementary school I attended as a child. It’s next door to the old Sanborn Mansion of the Chase and Sanborn Coffee Company. She spotted a wild turkey in the adjacent woods. She quickly found a turkey call “app” on her phone and soon we had dozens of wild turkeys flocking around our car.

And just yesterday, I was with my daughter again for her job interview in Plymouth, Massachusetts (often mistaken as the site of the first Thanksgiving). Again we found wild turkey flocks roaming on the grounds of the “living history” reconstruction at Plimouth Plantation (the historic spelling that they use there now).

My advice this Thanksgiving?

If you can’t find a typical butterball turkey, try a local, organic, farm-raised bird, or a wild-caught duck, goose, or even venison. That will put your menu closer to the actual one at the first Thanksgiving, whether in Massachusetts or Virginia.