By Vicky Boyd 

A viral disease some have dubbed the “Grim Reaper of poultry” has prompted the euthanizing of more than 1 million birds and a multi-county quarantine in Southern California to try to halt its spread. 

One rooster was also confirmed infected with virulent Newcastle disease, or vND, in Alameda County that had ties to the Southern California outbreak as well as possibly to a backyard flock in Tracy. The bird has since been euthanized, and disease eradication officials continue to monitor the situation.

But the region’s poultry industry remains on high alert, especially considering the bulk of the state’s poultry production is in Northern California.

“It’s not a disease that you can let spread and you can’t allow it to smolder,” said Dr. Bob O’Conner, veterinarian and senior vice president of technical services for Foster Farms. “You have to stamp it out.”

In San Joaquin County, Foster Farms has poultry farms near Linden and Farmington. From the Tehachapi Mountains north, the company currently has more than 40 million broilers and turkeys ranging from a day old to nearing market size, he said. 

Although the San Joaquin County Agricultural Commissioner’s office isn’t actively involved in the disease eradication effort, Ag Commissioner Tim Pelican said he still is worried about the county’s poultry industry. Eggs, for example, had a farmgate value of more than $41 million in 2017, according to the county’s annual crop report.

“It’s a huge concern because it could also affect exports,” Pelican said. “It’s a big issue if we get it into flocks here. Obviously, they would have to depopulate the entire flock, and that’s quite a loss for anybody.”

Following a recommendation from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, San Joaquin AgFest canceled all poultry shows tied to the June event to reduce the potential for disease transmission.

“Because it was an ongoing thing in Southern California, we made it very clear to all of the leaders and kids that at any time, your project could be taken off the table,” said Michelle Matos, an AgFest poultry barn chair. “In the beginning, we were going ahead because there hadn’t been any Northern California cases.”

When a bird was confirmed with vND in Alameda County in March, AgFest leaders made the tough decision to cancel the poultry show to protect the industry as a whole. Participants also won’t be able to sell their birds at the AgFest auction.

Students who hadn’t already registered for the show were given the option to switch to a different project, and Matos said she expects to see more goat and sheep projects as a result.

Many 4-H and FFA members had already received turkey poults donated by Diestel Turkey Ranch to start their projects. 

In the poultry show’s place will be a poster contest, where these students will be able to highlight what they’ve done raising their birds, Matos said. There will be an emphasis on the biosecurity measures they followed to minimize disease risk. 

“Part of owning poultry is realizing how do you control disease,” said O’Conner, who showed poultry when he was a youngster. “I think it’s a real important lesson and it’s very real-time for that type of lesson. It’s a perfect moment for teaching.”

What is virulent Newcastle disease?

Virulent Newcastle disease is caused by a virus that can be transmitted among birds by coughing and sneezing and through droppings. It also can be spread on clothing, shoes, trucks, equipment and machinery that has come in contact with infected areas.

In birds, symptoms include:

Sudden death and increased death loss in flock;

Sneezing, gasping for air, nasal discharge, coughing;

Greenish, watery diarrhea;

Decreased activity, tremors, drooping wings, twisting of head and neck, circling, complete stiffness; and

Swelling around the eyes and neck.

The virus generally doesn’t infect humans, unless they’re working closely with sick birds, and most people recover without medical care. The virus also can be killed by properly cooking eggs and meat.

Once a bird is infected, there is no cure, and most birds eventually die. As part of the joint state-federal eradication program, an entire flock must be depopulated if one infected birds is confirmed with the disease. Poultry houses also must be disinfected and remain free of birds for at least 120 days after the last positive find in the area.

During 2002-03, the last time the state battled vND – called exotic Newcastle disease back then – more than 4 million birds in Southern California were euthanized. CDFA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture together spent $150 million to eradicate the disease.

So far during the current outbreak, which began in May 2018, about 1.2 million birds on more than 1,000 Southern California properties have been euthanized. Of those, four were considered commercial pullet or layer farms.

The USDA, working with CDFA, also has quarantined all of Los Angeles County and portions of Riverside and San Bernardino counties to restrict bird movement. In addition, an infected bird was recently confirmed in Utah County, Utah, and one in Coconino County, Ariz. Both birds were linked to infected flocks in Southern California.

Getting the word out

Dr. Annette Jones, CDFA state veterinarian who was Southern California incident commander during the 2002-03 eradication program, said the experience has proven invaluable. Just like then, the current outbreak is circulating mostly in backyard flocks rather than commercial poultry.

“That means more bird owners must be reached, and we need to be sure they understand the disease, how devastating the impacts can be, and what must be done to stop the spread and eradicate the virus from California,” she said. “Compared to other diseases that trigger a state and federal emergency response, our effort to eradicate the vND virus requires outreach to play a front and center role. 

“In order to protect our state’s flocks, we depend upon public input and a partnership with bird owners – do not move poultry, use biosecurity to avoid inadvertently tracking the disease around to other yards, and cooperate with CDFA and USDA staff when we need to test, or harder still, euthanize sick and exposed poultry.”

Foster Farms and the California Poultry Federation have taken Jones’ words to heart and recently hosted a one-day workshop in Dublin to educate backyard flock owners about vND, clinical symptoms and the biosecurity steps they should take to protect their birds.

“As you know, more than 90 percent of the poultry and egg production is right here in the Central Valley, so we must all be vigilant to prevent the disease from spreading here,” said Bill Mattos, president of the Modesto-based California Poultry Federation. “Our members are on high alert for biosecurity and property protection. We are urging backyard owners to keep people away from their birds at all times.”

O’Conner agreed. “We’re all one health when it comes to poultry. Backyard flock owners are our neighbors. They’re as much at risk as we are of becoming infected. The same principles we apply to our flock owners also apply to backyard flock owners.”

Among those is ITS, an acronym representing three primary biosecurity measures.

Isolate your flock from other poultry, whether it’s commercial birds or just a few backyard chickens. Don’t bring in new birds, because even symptomless animals may carry the vND virus.

“T” is for traffic, meaning significantly limiting the amount of foot and equipment traffic into and around your facility since the virus can be brought in on clothing, boots, pens, materials and vehicles. 

“Really limit visitors, just like we don’t allow visitors to our operations,” O’Conner said.

“S” stands for sanitation. “Anything coming on your facility should be cleaned and sanitized before it comes onto the premises,” he said. 

If you think your birds are sick, immediately call the CDFA Sick Bird Hotline at (866) 922-2473.