U.S. grocery meat supply to improve soon, after virus-fueled demand surge: Tyson Foods

By Tom Polansek

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Demand for U.S. meat at grocery stores will likely exceed supplies for at least another week, the chief executive of Tyson Foods Inc told Reuters on Thursday, as the coronavirus pandemic fuels panic buying among shoppers.

Food manufacturers say overall meat supplies are ample to feed the millions of Americans hunkering down in their homes after state and local governments closed schools, bars and restaurants in an escalation of “social distancing” policies aimed at containing the virus.

But a surge in demand for products from chicken and beef to dry pasta at supermarkets has left store shelves and meat cases empty, alarming consumers.

“Once we are able to replenish supplies, which is probably going to take another week or so, then I think that we’ll be back in better equilibrium between supply and demand,” Tyson CEO Noel White said in an interview.

He later added: “In the short term, being a matter of weeks, there are some imbalances that exist.”

The “imbalances” are more demand than supply in sectors like retail stores, White said. The total amount of beef, pork and poultry available in the United States is up about 2% to 3% from last year, he said.

Orders for meat from grocery stores were significantly higher than usual through the weekend, after demand began to shift away from restaurants last week, White said.

“The demand hit very quickly,” White said. “The order fill rate has improved. It’s still not where we would expect it to be.”

Increased buying at supermarkets has lifted overall demand for meat, although the increase has been largely offset by reduced demand from restaurants, White said. Demand from casual dining restaurants, in particular, has suffered, though fast-food restaurants continue to benefit from strong drive-through traffic, he said. Tyson is the largest U.S. meat supplier and counts companies like McDonald’s Corp as customers.

To meet increased retail demand, Tyson has shifted processing facilities to produce food for grocery stores instead of restaurants, White said. The company is running slaughterhouses at full capacity and on weekends, he said.

U.S. cattle futures have dropped sharply on concerns slaughterhouses will close if the novel coronavirus spreads among workers.

To avoid shutdowns, Tyson has begun taking employees’ temperatures at two processing facilities and is expanding the practice to all U.S. workers, according to the company. It expects deliveries of several thousand thermometers on Thursday, White said.

(Reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Top U.S. chicken producing state suffers first case of bird flu

quarantine researcher checking chickens on poultry farm for bird flu

By Tom Polansek

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Georgia has confirmed its first-ever case of bird flu in commercial poultry, its agriculture department said on Monday, widening an outbreak of the disease into the United States’ biggest chicken meat-producing state.

A flock of 18,000 chickens used for breeding was culled after testing positive for H7 bird flu, according to the agriculture department. It said the birds in far northwestern Georgia were likely infected with a form of the virus that is not highly lethal because the flock did not show signs of illness.

The discovery came after officials in Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee confirmed cases of highly pathogenic, or lethal, and low pathogenic H7N9 bird flu in breeding operations this month. U.S. officials have said the risk of the disease spreading to people from poultry or making food unsafe is low.

But the spread of highly pathogenic bird flu to poultry in new states would represent a financial risk for meat companies because it could kill more birds or require flocks to be culled. It could also trigger more import bans from other countries after South Korea and other buyers limited U.S. poultry shipments following highly pathogenic cases in Tennessee.

The worst-ever U.S. outbreak of highly pathogenic bird flu in poultry in 2014 and 2015 killed about 50 million birds, most of which were egg-laying hens in Iowa.

More than 200,000 breeding chickens in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky have been killed in recent weeks by high and low pathogenic bird flu or culled to contain the virus, according to state officials. U.S. poultry producers had about 55.1 million breeder hens on hand as of March 1, according to the USDA.

In 2015, Georgia produced 7.9 billion pounds of chicken meat valued at $4.2 billion, the agency said.

“Poultry is the top sector of our number one industry, agriculture, and we are committed to protecting the livelihoods of the many farm families that are dependent on it,” Gary Black, Georgia’s agriculture commissioner, said in a statement.

Some companies are still feeling pressure related to the 2015 losses.

On Monday, Cal-Maine Foods, the biggest U.S. egg producer, said its quarterly sales fell about 32 percent from a year ago because prices were under pressure after farmers increased production in response to an outbreak two years ago.

(Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Andrew Hay)

Bird flu found in Tennessee chicken flock on Tyson-contracted farm

The Avian influenza virus is harvested from a chicken egg as part of a diagnostic process in this undated U.S. Department of Agriculture

By Jo Winterbottom

(Reuters) – A strain of bird flu has been detected in a chicken breeder flock on a Tennessee farm contracted to U.S. food giant Tyson Foods Inc, and the 73,500 birds will be culled to stop the virus from entering the food system, government and company officials said on Sunday.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said this represented the first confirmed case of highly pathogenic H7 avian influenza (HPAI) in commercial poultry in the United States this year. It is the first time HPAI has been found in Tennessee, the state government said.

Tyson, the biggest chicken meat producer in the United States, said in a statement it was working with Tennessee and federal officials to contain the virus by euthanizing the birds on the contract farm.

In 2014 and 2015, during a widespread outbreak of HPAI, the United States killed nearly 50 million birds, mostly egg-laying hens. The losses pushed U.S. egg prices to record highs and prompted trading partners to ban imports of American poultry, even though there was little infection then in the broiler industry.

No people were affected in that outbreak, which was primarily of the H5N2 strain. The risk of human infection in poultry outbreaks is low, although in China people have died this winter amid an outbreak of the H7N9 virus in birds.

The facility in Tennessee’s Lincoln County has been placed under quarantine, along with approximately 30 other poultry farms within a 6.2-mile (10 km) radius of the site, the state said. Other flocks in the quarantined area are being tested, it added.

Tyson, the USDA and the state did not name the facility involved. Tyson said that it did not expect disruptions to its chicken business.

The USDA should have more information by Monday evening about the particular strain of the virus involved, spokeswoman Donna Karlsons said by email.

HPAI bird flu was last found in a commercial turkey flock in Indiana in January 2016.

The USDA said it would inform the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and international trading partners of the outbreak.

The biggest traditional markets for U.S. chicken meat are Mexico and Canada, which introduced state or regional bans on U.S. broiler exports after the outbreak two years ago, and China, which imposed a national ban.

Tennessee’s broiler production is too small to rank it in the top five U.S. producing states but it is the third-largest generator of cash receipts in agriculture for the state.

In January, the USDA detected bird flu in a wild duck in Montana that appeared to match one of the strains found during the 2014 and 2015 outbreak.

The United States stepped up biosecurity measures aimed at preventing the spread of bird flu after the outbreak two years ago.

Tyson said precautions being taken include disinfecting all vehicles entering farms and banning all nonessential visitor access to contract farms.

In recent months, different strains of bird flu have been confirmed across Asia and in Europe. Authorities have culled millions of birds in affected areas to control the outbreaks.

France, which has the largest poultry flock in the European Union, has reported outbreaks of the highly contagious H5N8 bird flu virus. In South Korea, the rapid spread of the H5N6 strain of the virus has led to the country’s worst-ever outbreak of bird flu.

(Reporting by Lewis Krauskopf in New York and Jo Winterbottom in Chicago; Editing by Will Dunham)

Poultry Producers Attempt Genetically Modified Chickens to Fight Bird Flu

A group of poultry producers are working with scientists to create a strain of genetically modified chickens that would be immune to bird flu.

The study is also being supported by funding from the British government.  So far, the scientists have created chickens that show “early promise” for fighting off the disease.

Over 48 million chicken and turkeys have been put down in the US because of bird flu since December.

“The public is obviously aware of these outbreaks when they’re reported and wondering why there’s not more done to control it,” said Laurence Tiley, a senior lecturer in molecular virology at the University of Cambridge who is involved in the experiments, told Reuters.

The chicks in the study, who have been injected with dye to glow in the dark and stand out from non-modified chicks, are showing an initial immunity to the virus and also have been unable to spread the virus to other animals.  The genetic codes of the birds are being changed to trick the virus into reproducing a decoy virus rather than itself.

GMO animals have been a source of concern for the Food and Drug Administration, who have been examining GMO salmon for the last 20 years.  The agency deemed the animals safe for human consumption in 2010 but continue to study them.

Opponents say that like GMO crops the animals would contribute to health and environmental problems.