There's a fair bit of coffee shop chatter about how avian influenza (AI) could impact the infrastructure of the U.S. cattle industry. Namely, if the disease shows up here and flocks are quarantined, will that restrict the movement of cattle and other livestock? What about hauling feed around the U.S.?

So many tales are spun that some may be surprised to hear Max Coats, Texas Animal Health Commission deputy director, explain, “I don't think it would have a terribly profound impact on cattle producers.” Keep in mind, he's talking strictly about the agricultural impact of AI if it arrives in the U.S., not the human pandemic many fear.

In fact, at least in Texas, where animal health officials dealt with a different strain of AI last year, Coats explains that even cattle producers who have commercial poultry enterprises might not see their cattle operations limited much.

“Depending on the pathogenicity (the organism's disease-producing potential), the arrangement of facilities and producers' ability to provide biosecurity, producers in that situation might still be able to gather and ship cattle,” Coats says. “First of all, commercial poultry is already confined. Plus, the AI organism doesn't have the environmental hardiness or infectiousness of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD)… I don't see a need for the kind of draconian rules we would have to implement with FMD.”

He alludes to FMD, that nightmarish foreign animal disease (FAD), because such worries are still fresh in producers' minds.

“Each response to various FADs is different,” Coats explains. “The goal of containment and eradication is the same for each, but what you have to do in order to achieve that goal is different.”

In the case of AI, the response plan is pretty straightforward: depopulate the infected flock and disinfect the premises.

Potential market impact

Depending on the international response to AI in the U.S., and the duration of that response, the market wouldn't necessarily suffer much either, says Mike Miller, Cattle-Fax director of research and education.

“Obviously, if AI turned up here and the U.S. was shut out of the export markets — primarily Russia — the impact on poultry production would be immediate. It also would put an awful lot of dark meat on the market. The poultry industry could slow down production, but it would take several months,” Miller says.

In other developed countries currently dealing with AI, Miller says declines in domestic poultry consumption have been immediate and profound. For instance, he says Italian poultry consumption quickly fell 50% when the disease was discovered there.

In the short run, if U.S. consumers shied away from poultry, it could be positive for beef demand. However, Miller cautions, “If poultry exports were limited for several months, then I think it would turn bearish for everyone, including beef.”

Odds remain the same

Though plenty of folks are banking on AI turning up in the U.S., Coats says the probability is no less or no greater than before.

“All the mechanisms for disease transmission that we're concerned about have always existed,” he says.

What has changed, Coats says, is the accelerated movement of people and goods in commerce around the world. That's the biggest threat.

Even though the odds are static, Coats has been beating his drum for individual biosecurity more loudly.

He advises producers: “Look at the things you can do in your operation to further mitigate the potential spread of any disease. Concentrating on the biosecurity in your operation is the best option you have.”

Coats emphasizes his comments are based on how AI could impact the cattle industry. If you start talking about the possibilities of a global human pandemic, all bets are off.

The Hong Kong Flu of 1968, for instance, caused 33,800 U.S. deaths, says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that was less than half of the U.S. deaths inflicted by the Asian Flu of 1957. Even so, Coats remembers the Hong Kong Flu pandemic, which caused all kinds of economic disruption due to absenteeism.

“It affected everything that required manpower,” Coats says. “My suspicion is, if AI were to come to that, the animal disease and its impact on agriculture wouldn't be much of a news item.”

You can find a list of basic biosecurity practices from the Texas Animal Health Commission at www.tahc.state.tx.us/news/brochures or www.beefcowcalf.com.