The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Avian Flu Update

Avian Flu Update


June 28, 2007

Avian Flu Update

Free range is a way of life in Petaluma, California. It's the home of Petaluma Poultry's Rocky the Range Chicken, the first commercially available free range chicken available in the United States. Rocky chickens are allowed to roam outside the house in daylight hours as early as four weeks of age, and appeal to consumers interested in eating chickens raised in a more natural environment. But in light of the threat of Avian Influenza (AI), is free range still a safe, desirable practice for raising our chickens? 

Dr. Patrice Klein, Senior Staff Veterinarian and Avian Disease Specialist at the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service says that poultry raised in nonconfinement systems which include, but are not limited to, free-range and organic poultry, may present an increased risk of exposure to avian influenza because the animals are more likely to come in contact with wild birds that are natural reservoirs of the AI virus, even if the risk is low. 

Klein recommends that poultry producers who raise birds in outdoor, nonconfinement systems take precautions to prevent exposure by either keeping birds indoors or restricting outside access. Feed and water for free range poultry, she says, should be provided in an inside area. 

"This guidance should remain in effect permanently," she says, "because it is recognized that wild birds, especially wild waterfowl and shorebirds, can be carriers for AI, and the H5/H7 AI subtypes have the potential to mutate to highly pathogenic strains if they become host adapted in domestic poultry." 

Richard Lobb, Director of Communications for the National Chicken Council, agrees while pointing out that unease about free range poultry likely stems from Asian AI outbreak reports or concerns about European free range methods. In traditional Asian farming, chickens roamed free throughout the village, exposing them to wild birds carrying the virus. On European free range farms, chickens roamed outside in larger confined spaces than U.S. farms typically allow, further increasing their vulnerability to AI. 

"U.S. free range birds are not entirely free-roaming, and certainly not as free roaming as their European counterparts. In fact, under USDA guidelines, a bird can be considered free range simply if it has access to the outside. The amount of access is not specified. Most U.S. free range chicken operations allow their birds limited access to the outside for some part of the day. However, it is always within a gated, monitored area," says Lobb. 

Interestingly, birds raised in Thailand in more modern facilities facilities that are very similar to the ones used in conventional indoor U.S. poultry farming  fared much better during the last AI outbreak than their outdoor counterparts, suggesting that, at least internationally (where migratory birds were carrying AI), indoor practices could be more desirable should another outbreak occur. Some European countries took this message to heart in 2005, implementing biosecurity methods that aimed to prevent all contact between their poultry and wild birds. Like the USDA, many EU nations called for covering enclosures for nonconfinement-raised poultry in high risk areas, and feeding birds indoors, away from possible contamination from wild birds. 

Several U.S. poultry farmers are currently following suit, covering outside areas for further protection from predators, migratory birds and the elements. And although free range sales have increased in recent years, they still only make up a fraction of a percent of the U.S. chicken market overall, further reducing risk of a large-scale outbreak. 

Lobb adds that the threat internationally has receded considerably in recent months, and the threat in the U.S. is currently non-existent, especially since the U.S. does not import live poultry and raw poultry products from any of the AI-infected regions. Meanwhile, consumers should follow the usual methods for maintaining food safety like washing hands, cooking meat thoroughly, and cleaning all cooking equipment wish warm, soapy water. 

As for the effectiveness of the new methods for protecting nonconfinement birds, all eyes will be on the late summer and early fall season, when migratory birds come back from nesting areas, carrying potential pathogens. 

"It has been a quiet few months, so it will be instructive to see what happens this fall," says Lobb. "We'll be able to more accurately measure how well international preventative measures are working to keep domestic birds AI-free when the wild birds return." 

In general it is important for all poultry owners to practice good biosecurity principles. Keeping birds indoors and preventing direct contact with wild birds are key approaches to minimizing risks for disease exposure. 

For more information on protecting the health of birds and to obtain "Biosecurity for Birds" educational materials, please visit the APHIS Web site

For updated information on AI, visit