Kitchener-Waterloo

Farmers on alert as avian flu found on 4th southern Ontario farm

Ontario farmers are stepping up biosecurity measures as a fourth southern Ontario farm has been placed under quarantine after avian flu was detected in poultry flock.

Health officials say avian influenza (H5N1) isn't a significant public health concern

File photo shows a healthy chicken. In southern Ontario this week, avian flu has been detected on multiple farms. (Shutterstock)

Ontario farmers are stepping up biosecurity measures as a fourth southern Ontario farm has been placed under quarantine after avian flu was detected in poultry flock.

The "highly pathogenic" H5N1 strain of avian flu is spreading around the world among wild birds, and has already been reported at commercial farms in Atlantic Canada and throughout the United States.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has confirmed avian flu cases at three Ontario farms: in Woolwich Township, part of Waterloo Region; Zorra Township near London; and in Guelph/Eramosa near Guelph. The most recently reported case involves a poultry flock in the Township of Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation.

The CFIA has placed all the farms under strict quarantine, establishing movement controls and recommending higher biosecurity at nearby farms. 

Last week, the agency also confirmed avian flu in a wild red-tailed hawk in the Waterloo, Ont., area.

The provincial Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs says avian influenza is not a significant public health concern for healthy people who aren't in regular contact with infected birds, and is not a threat to food safety when there's proper handling and cooking.

A flock health issue

The detection of avian flu has Ontario farmers like Ingrid DeVisser concerned for their flocks and livelihoods.

"We are being extremely vigilant and watchful," DeVisser, who owns a family turkey farm in Bruce County, told CBC News. "We normally use excellent bio-security and we have stepped it up a notch, if that's possible."

DeVisser said the farm is already doing much of its business remotely and is now limiting visitors to essential services.

She's also limiting the number of people working in the barn and has adopted stringent safety protocols, including sanitization, wearing personal protective equipment and changing work clothing regularly. 

"As farmers, our main priority is to keep our birds safe and healthy," DeVisser said. "That's what we're working on and that's what we're being very careful about." 

'Detective work' needed

Shayan Sharif, a professor and associate dean of research and graduate studies at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph, said it's important to limit the spread of avian flu as much as possible. 

Shayan Sharif, an associate dean of research and graduate studies at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph, says it's important to limit the spread of avian flu as much as possible. (Ontario Veterinary College/University of Guelph)

"What's required is significant amounts of detective work" by the CFIA, Sharif said.

"It is quite possible that migratory birds are coming from various other places into Ontario and spreading the virus, and those three farms could be connected."

Sharif said every effort should be made to restrict movement of people and exchange of materials between infected farms as well. 

It's not just farms taking precautions. This week, the Toronto Zoo announced "out of an abundance of caution" it would close its walk-through bird aviaries in pavilions to guests and behind-the-scenes tours of animal food preparation and bird housing will be temporarily suspended. It's also enhancing safety measures for all staff.

'Enjoy your Easter turkey'

Lisa Bishop-Spencer, who's with the Chicken Farmers of Canada, said the most important message is that general public does not need to be concerned about contracting avian flu.

"You would have to be in some pretty intense contact with infected birds and prolonged contact to, you know, to risk getting avian flu. And it's not in your food," she said.

"Health Canada is definitive that this is not a food safety or quality issue. It's a flock health issue. There's no risk to the health of the general population."

People who eat chicken or turkey can continue to do so as avian flu is not spread through cooked meat, health officials say. (Bree Fowler/The Associated Press)

DeVisser agreed, saying, "I guess my message as a turkey farmer is, please continue to enjoy your Easter turkey."

DeVisser said while it's unfortunate that avian flu outbreaks are occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic, her experience during COVID-19 has left her better equipped to manage the situation, and she hopes other farmers can draw on that experience as well. 

"We're hoping we're going to be able to mitigate this outbreak and keep it as small as we possibly can," DeVisser said. "The message to everybody is: bio-security, practice your bio-security. Just be as careful as you can be."

With files from The Canadian Press, Kate Bueckert

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