Avian Influenza: What Food Processors Need To Know

June 29, 2015
John Howeth, senior VP, American Egg Board, addresses questions concerning the outbreak and its effect on the egg products supply for food manufacturers.

Q: What is the size and scope of the current AI outbreak?

A: The U.S. is experiencing an outbreak of highly pathogenic Avian Influenza (AI). To date more than 37 million egg laying birds have been affected. This calculates to about 12 percent of all layers in the U.S. and more than 30 percent of the layers dedicated for the egg products business.

Q: How is AI transmitted?

A: It is believed AI is transmitted through wild birds and waterfowl, either through direct contact with other birds or indirectly. Researchers and scientists continue to evaluate other ways the disease may be spreading.

Q: How is the U.S. egg industry handling this outbreak?

A: U.S. egg farmers have implemented extensive biosecurity measures and taken every precaution to protect their flocks, including restricting farm access, preventing exposure to wild and migratory birds, increasing veterinary monitoring and using protective gear at all times.

Q. Is there a public safety concern?

A. The Center for Disease Control considers the risk to people from HPAI H5 to be low.  No human infections with the virus have been detected at this time.  

Q. How do we know egg products are safe?

A: Mechanisms are in place to protect the
egg supply. Facilities where AI has been detected are not allowed to ship shell eggs to market. All liquid, frozen and dried eggs are pasteurized, and pasteurization deactivates Avian Influenza.

Q. Are consumers concerned about eating eggs as a result of the AI outbreak?

A. According to a recent survey, two-thirds of Americans had not noticed any news about AI. More than three-quarters of the sample said it would not effect their consumption, and nearly 89 percent believe eggs are safe to eat.

Q. Why is there a shortage of egg products?

A. Several large egg breakers are experiencing disruptions in supply. These breakers are located near layer farms in the Midwest where many of the outbreaks have occurred. Once an outbreak initiates, it not only affects the farm where the layers are housed, but it also affects the breaker operations, essentially stopping production of egg products.  Further processors are using every resource to find shell eggs that can be converted to egg products.

Q: What does this mean for food manufacturers that use eggs?

A: No doubt there have been some shortages in egg supply. America's egg farmers are working hard to find sources for their manufacturing partners.

Q. How has the outbreak affected pricing?

A. According to Urner Barry, a commodities tracking service, the immediate concern is egg products. They have seen prices increase 170% in the past several weeks. For the official forecast, visit http://www.usda.gov/oce/commodity/wasde/latest.pdf

Q. Can eggs and egg products be imported?

A. To ensure public safety, the federal government has strict policies regarding imported products. Before a country is allowed to import, the production facilities are heavily vetted to ensure imported products are safe and meet USDA/FDA standards and requirements. Currently, a few countries are approved
to export shell eggs to the U.S. Also, the Netherlands was reinstated to export pasteurized egg products here. This, hopefully, will relieve some pressure on supply.

Q. What about egg replacements?

A. We hope eggs are not replaced. Nevertheless, we understand the challenges food manufacturers are facing.

Q. What are important considerations when using replacers?

A. Functionality, performance, taste, consumer recognition of the ingredients on the label, and food safety are just a few. Industry research shows that manufacturers do try replacers, but are reluctant to make the transition, mainly because of performance, especially texture. Eggs, clearly, are the best choice.

Q. What if AI reappears in fall 2015?

A. We cannot predict anything as it relates to AI, as this is truly an act of nature. The egg industry is working closely with state and federal officials on key AI response issues. Egg producers are working tirelessly to ensure on-farm biosecurity, which includes comprehensive measures that mitigate transmission of the virus into the henhouse.

Q. When will the egg supply return to pre-outbreak levels and pricing?

A. There’s an awful lot that can go into this. USDA APHIS has outlined various steps that are necessary before operations can resume after an outbreak on a farm. Further outbreaks will cause the process to be restarted. So in a perfect world, we’re talking 12 to 18 months from the last detection.

Editor's Note: This Q&A was sponsored by the American Egg Board

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