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To protect poultry, bird flu brings indoors free-range chickens.

Is it okay for chickens that are free to roam?

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To protect poultry, bird flu brings indoors free-range chickens.

This is a question that free-range egg producers are trying to answer lately. They want to make their product transparent while protecting the chickens from an extremely infectious bird flu that has killed approximately 28 million birds.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends chickens be moved inside to prevent the spread of the disease. However, some people keep their hens indoors.

John Brunnquell (CEO of Indiana-based Egg Innovations), said that any chickens from states affected by bird flu will remain in "confinement mode" up until the risk is eliminated.

Brunnquell stated that they would keep them in a confined area at least until June. "If they have no commercial breakouts for four weeks, then we will look to let them go back."

There have been 29 cases of bird flu in chicken and turkey farms, as well as backyard flocks in 29 US states according to the USDA. The spread of the disease can be largely attributed to the droppings of infected wild birds.

Brunnquell has contracts with farms in Illinois, Indiana Kentucky, Ohio, Wisconsin. All of these farms have experienced at least one case of bird flu.

Some, such as Mike Badger, executive director of American Pastured Poultry Producers Association take a different approach.

Badger's Pennsylvania-based nonprofit group, which has around 1,000 members all over the country, believes that birds kept outside are less likely to contract illness than turkeys and chickens raised in large enclosed barns.

Badger stated, "We put them out and they get in touch the environment so I believe they have a better immunity system to be able fight off threats as soon as they happen."

There have been no studies that show significant differences in the immune systems of chickens raised outdoors and indoors. Badger suggests that a lower number of chickens, less air movement, and less sharing of equipment and personnel in pasture-raised poultry operations could all contribute to the absence of viral infections.

He stated that the farm's decision about whether to bring the hens in to watch the wild waterfowl migration is made on a farm-to–farm basis.

Only a small portion of U.S. egg production is produced by commercial outdoor flocks. 6.8 million chickens (2% of the national flock) are free-range. About 4.2 million chickens (1.3% of U.S. eggs production) are raised from pasture-raised chickens.

The amount of time that chickens spend outside and the space they have are given determines whether they are pasture-raised or free-range.

According to the American Humane Association (which certifies egg production), free-range chickens must have at most 21.8 square feet (2 meters) of outdoor space. They can stay out until temperatures fall below 30 degrees Fahrenheit (minus one Celsius). Pasture-raised chickens must have at least 108 square feet (10 meters) of outdoor space and be outside during all other seasons.

These certifying agencies have protocols for high risk situations and allow temporary housing indoors. This is allowed once a farm has documented an outbreak in an outdoor flock. Certified agencies inspect farms to make sure they don't allow birds to stay inside for too long.

Brunnquell stated that none of his farms were infected during the 2015 outbreak, and that he hasn’t seen any this year.

The bird virus has been affecting European farmers for longer than Americans. cases were reported as far back as December.

To protect birds from the avian influenza, the United Kingdom ordered that free-range chickens be kept inside. This has led to changes in how eggs are labeled in shops. According to the British Free Range Egg Producers Association, free-range packaging can still be used, but it must also include the label "barn eggs". Every egg is also stamped with a number. 2 denotes "barn", rather than No. 1 denotes "free-range"

It means that the premium prices for free-range eggs in the United States could be due to chickens being kept inside temporarily. Producers say that people who pay more for free-range or pasture-raised eggs are likely to have concerns about animal welfare and do not want their chickens to become infected with the virus.

Brunnquell noted that certification agencies also monitor farms to make sure they aren't using bird flu to excuse birds being kept inside for too long.

Due to concerns about bird flu and an increase in food costs, eggs of all types have become more expensive.

According to the USDA, conventional eggs prices increased by 40c per dozen to $1.47, while cage-free eggs prices rose 3c to $2.40 per pound. Organic eggs, which come from chickens that have had access to the outdoors, are now selling at a national average price of $4.39 per dozen, an increase from the $3.65 week prior.

On April 8, the price of eggs used in bakeries and other food products reached a new record high.

According to Karyn Rispoli (egg market reporter at Urner Barry), a New Jersey-based firm that conducts food commodity market research and analyses, so-called "breaker eggs" are eggs that will be later broken down by processors and sold in 50-pound containers. Rispoli stated that many of the bird flu-infected egg layers were from farms that provided breaker eggs for food products.

Bird flu will likely remain an issue for several weeks more as migrating waterfowl continue to move along the Mississippi Flyway through June. Bird flu was eradicated in the past by warmer weather and an end to migration. This allowed turkey farmers and chicken farmers to resume production and begin the long process of rebuilding their flocks.


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