(Adds companies, trade group, Bunge CEO comment)
By P.J. Huffstutter
CHICAGO, April 30 (Reuters) - An Iowa-based chicken broiler breeding farm has initially tested positive for the highly pathogenic H5 bird flu, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship said on Thursday.
The facility in Kossuth County, Iowa, houses an estimated 19,000 birds, state officials said. Birds were dying in greater than normal numbers at the breeding farm, which is a typical sign of influenza infection in a flock.
This is thought to be first time the avian influenza virus has affected a broiler breeding farm in this outbreak. Such breeding farms are traditionally known for having extremely tight biosecurity systems.
Though the operation is small compared to some of the other poultry farm sites in the Midwest that have been affected by the current outbreak, the probable breach of a chicken broiler breeder’s biosecurity underscores the potential for the country’s poultry meat industry supply chain to be affected.
Typically, such facilities’ chickens lay fertile eggs, which are sent to a hatchery to produce chicks that are later raised and slaughtered for meat.
Additional testing to confirm the finding is underway at the federal Agriculture Department of Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services’ (APHIS) National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa.
The National Chicken Council, the industry’s leading trade group, declined to comment, saying it was waiting for the results of the additional tests.
Officials with the three top broiler breeding companies that supply the U.S. chicken industry, Aviagen Group, Groupe Grimaud, and Tyson Foods Inc’s Cobb Vantress, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Tyson Foods spokesman Gary Mickelson said in an email the company does not have any chicken breeder or broiler operations in Iowa.
Two bird flu strains have been found in the United States this year. The H5N2 strain has been reported in Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin. It has also been identified on farms in Ontario, Canada.
The H5N8 strain has been identified in California and also in Idaho, according to the Agriculture Department.
The economic cost of the outbreak is unclear.
Hormel Foods Corp, based in Minnesota, said last week that avian influenza may drag its fiscal 2015 earnings toward the lower end of forecasts. More than two dozen of the poultry suppliers for Hormel’s Jennie-O Turkey Store unit have been hit by the outbreak. Minnesota is the largest turkey-producing state in the country.
Last week, Mexico, the biggest buyer of U.S. chicken, halted imports of live birds and eggs from Iowa.
A U.S. outbreak of bird flu in poultry is not having a material impact on demand for soybean meal, which can be fed to chickens and turkeys, Chief Executive Soren Schroder of oilseed processor Bunge Ltd said on Thursday.
More than 15 million commercial birds nationwide have died or are expected to be killed in the current outbreak. (Reporting By P.J. Huffstutter. Additional reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Toni Reinhold)