A highly contagious strain of bird flu plagues farmers across the U.S.

The U.S. is in the midst of its worst deadly bird flu outbreak in years. Millions of poultry and wild birds have been killed. And although the risk to human health is low, the impacts have trickled down to consumers. William Brangham traveled to the Midwest, where producers and scientists are desperately trying to stay ahead of the virus.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.S. is in the midst of its worst bird flu outbreak in years. Millions of poultry and wild birds have been killed.

    And although the risk to human health is low, the impacts are trickling down to consumers.

    William Brangham recently traveled to the Midwest, where producers and scientists are desperately trying to stay ahead of the virus.

  • And a warning:

    Some viewers might find images in this story disturbing.

  • John Zimmerman, Turkey Farmer:

    This is the only way to get into the barn.

  • William Brangham:

    For Minnesota turkey farmer John Zimmerman, there are some added costs of doing business these days.

  • John Zimmerman:

    This is the dirty side, and anything from past that mark is considered clean inside the barn.

  • William Brangham:

    Every time Zimmerman, or one of his employees, enters this barn, home to some 7,500 turkeys, they have to put on fresh boots and coveralls, wash their hands, and slide on gloves.

    It's all meant to prevent the spread of a deadly avian influenza, or bird flu. This strain is so contagious that a single case found in any of his barns would likely force Zimmerman to kill his entire flock.

  • John Zimmerman:

    It's just a little bit more stressful now, because that uncertainty of that virus can come in, and, in the morning, the birds can be fine, and, at night, you're going to be picking up hundreds, if not thousands of dead birds. And, oh, crap, what do I do now?

  • William Brangham:

    This new virus spread from migratory birds coming from Europe. Many birds carry flu viruses all the time, and it doesn't usually harm them.

    But, sometimes, a strain can get passed to domestic birds, like chickens, ducks, or turkeys, and, with the right mutation, can then spread like wildfire. In 2015, during the last big outbreak, more than 50 million birds were killed or died nationwide. With this new strain, over 37 million birds are dead across more than 30 states.

  • John Zimmerman:

    Every morning, I get up and I look into the sky and make sure I don't see any ducks or geese flying overhead.

    And then we check our barns on our — we check our barns.

  • William Brangham:

    Because, if you see ducks or geese flying overhead, they could be dropping feces…

  • John Zimmerman:


  • William Brangham:

    … that might be loaded with virus.

  • John Zimmerman:

    Yes. It gets to be a knee-jerk reaction. And you do it. You know, since 2015, my son is 7 years old. And he knows daddy does not likes duck and geese, and they're the worst animals in the world. And he's grown up with duck bad, goose bad.

    So, it's…


  • John Zimmerman:

    So, it's kind of ingrained in me to watch for that from now on, I think.

  • William Brangham:

    This flu strain is so contagious that it could even enter a closed barn traveling on airborne bits of dust or dirt, leaving farmers like Zimmerman always on edge.

  • John Zimmerman:

    In the morning, you go check your barns, and you make sure you don't — your mortality is not up, and the birds are healthy and active. And you breathe a sigh of relief that you have made it through another night.

  • William Brangham:

    But what happens when farmers do see signs that their birds might be sick?

    Here at the Minnesota Poultry Testing Lab,scientists test about 100 samples a day for bird flu, using the same PCR process used for COVID tests.

    Jerry Torrison directs the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab at the University of Minnesota, which jointly runs this facility with the state.

    Dr. Jerry Torrison, University of Minnesota: Producers, veterinarians, animal health regulatory people have to decide the fate of a flock of birds. They have to decide if it's negative. It's business as usual. If it tests positive, if they have flu, then that flock is depopulated.

    And they want to make those decisions as soon as they possibly can, so that everybody can respond accordingly.

  • William Brangham:

    The state expanded this lab in the heart of Minnesota's turkey country after the 2015 outbreak. It's part of a nationwide network of labs tracking bird flu, with positive results reported to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

  • Dr. Jerry Torrison:

    It's like were in the fire watch tower and watching the lightning strikes hit out in the forest. And so we're the fire spotters.

    And that's different this year, in that there are so many more premises. There are actually more sites, more flocks already this year than there were in 2015.

  • William Brangham:

    Right now, there is no evidence this flu is a danger to humans.

    Last month, an inmate in Colorado did test positive for the virus, after helping remove chickens from an infected barn, but he's recovered, and officials stressed that risk remains very low. Perhaps the greater impact of this outbreak on humans is to their wallets.

  • Jayson Lusk, Purdue University:

    Chicken and turkey prices are about 20 to 30 percent higher. Egg prices are actually up almost double since the same time last year.

  • William Brangham:

    Jayson Lusk is an agricultural economist at Purdue University.

    While the flu outbreak plays a role in higher prices, Lusk says so do other factors, like supply chain issues and rising feed costs, driven partly by the war in Ukraine.

  • Jayson Lusk:

    While it's true that a very large number of birds have been affected by bird flu, they represent a very small share of the overall inventory. But if you're a producer that's been hit by bird flu, it can be devastating.

  • William Brangham:

    This virus is also proving deadly to certain wild birds, like this eagle, who've been hit much harder by this strain than in past outbreaks.

    Dr. Victoria Hall, University of Minnesota: We have never seen this before.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Victoria Hall directs the University of Minnesota's Raptor Center. Well over 100 raptors have come into the center suffering with avian flu, seizing, unable to stand, unresponsive. Only one lucky owl, which may have had a lower viral load, has survived so far.

    It's not clear why this year's outbreak is so much worse for wild birds than in 2015. Back then, not a single raptor at the center tested positive.

  • Dr. Victoria Hall:

    We know there are species like bald eagles that have made a comeback historically. Now they're still challenged with things like lead poisoning. What happens when you add highly pathogenic avian influenza on top of that?

  • William Brangham:

    Another difference this year, many more backyard flocks have been hit by the virus, compared to 2015.

  • Stacy DeCorsey, Backyard Flock Owner:

    Welcome to the coop.

  • William Brangham:

    Stacy DeCorsey started with three chickens at her house in suburban Minneapolis about seven years ago. She's lost count now of how many chickens, turkeys and ducks she has, even though she knows all their names.

  • Stacy DeCorsey:

    Jangles. That's Chevy Chase. Scarlett Johansson.

  • William Brangham:

    And as I learned with the big gray turkey Hermione…

    Oh, hello.

    … they're very happy to be with humans.

    While DeCorsey can't implement the same so-called biosecurity as a commercial producer does, her birds were healthy before, during and after our visit. To avoid attracting any migratory birds, she's not leaving food or water outside. But she doesn't have the space to keep her birds cooped up indoors.

  • Stacy DeCorsey:

    It's stressful.

    I know I lost sleep the first — the first week, first two weeks. And then my grandpa, a farmer from Iowa, that just kicks in. And it's a farm animal, and it's a bird. And we can rebuild. I certainly feel really bad for those who their livelihood depends on their flocks.

  • William Brangham:

    While affected farmers are eligible for some compensation from the federal government, John Zimmerman says recovery is not that simple.

  • John Zimmerman:

    You put a lot of time and energy, your heart and soul into raising these birds. And the fact that you have to destroy that is incredibly tough.

    Now, we understand we're doing that, we're euthanizing these birds to save other birds, but it's incredibly difficult and it's emotionally, physically and mentally devastating to the farmers that they have to do that.

  • William Brangham:

    So, for now, he's keeping everything as clean as possible, watching the skies closely, and hoping he makes it through this outbreak.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham in Minnesota.

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