Timely interventions needed to attain bird flu-free status

Just when the government thought that the bird-flu crisis is over, the virus struck again in Cabiao, Nueva Ecija. Avian influenza (AI) affected a layer farm in Cabiao, forcing the owner to cull some 42,000 birds. According to the Department of Agriculture (DA), the Cabiao flock was hit by the same strain (H5N6), which killed thousands of birds in Pampanga.

Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel F. Piñol announced that there was an outbreak in Cabiao days after culling operations ended on November 22. Piñol said the government decided not to make a big fuss out of the recent AI incident as the DA already knew what to do. Apart from the AI management protocol, Piñol disclosed that “additional measures” were rolled out to make sure that bird-flu outbreaks are immediately controlled.

While it is unfortunate that the Philippines now had to contend with the AI virus, the country’s experience yielded valuable lessons, which are now serving well both the industry and the government. Poultry growers are now aware of the need to immediately report suspicious bird deaths. It appears that the government has also found a way to
manage and control the outbreaks without causing panic among industry players and consumers.

Proof of this is the fact that the farm-gate price of broilers and retail price of dressed chicken have not fallen dramatically, unlike in August, when Luzon producers incurred huge losses. At the time, the farm-gate price of broilers in Pampanga nosedived to as much as P15 per kilogram, a level that is not even enough to allow local growers to recoup their production cost.

The recent outbreak, however, would hit exporters the hardest. The government had been planning to notify the World Organization for Animal Health, or OIE, by December 20 that the Philippines is free from bird flu. Because of the Cabiao incident, the Philippines had been forced to reset its countdown to bird flu-free status. The earliest notification to the OIE could be made by the last week of February.

Even before the discovery of the bird-flu outbreak, exporters of poultry products from the Philippines have to contend with Thailand, which produces cheaper chicken products. The prolonged absence of Philippine poultry from major markets, such as Japan, which also buys chicken products from Thailand, bodes ill for local exporters. Unfortunately, Philippine poultry would remain missing from the shelves of foreign supermarkets because the country has not yet achieved bird flu-free status.

Attaining bird flu-free status requires timely interventions, as well as more vigilance from stakeholders in the poultry sector and the government. The virus struck a town about an hour away from Jaen, where an outbreak occurred in August. The DA could consider making good on its promise to regularly inspect livestock and poultry farms, particularly in landlocked Luzon, as the virus easily spreads in these areas. The government must not stop searching for answers and for ways to prevent bird flu from spreading to other areas if it wants the regain the trust of the country’s foreign customers.