Clean-up costs could run to as much as £10 per bird for egg producers whose layer units are hit by avian influenza.

 

An outbreak of bird flu at Staveleys Eggs near Preston in Lancashire has, once again, highlighted the devastation the disease can cause. Nearly 200,000 laying birds have been culled following confirmation of avian influenza, and strict restrictions have been put in place around the farm and the surrounding area in an attempt to prevent the virus spreading to other nearby poultry units.

The Staveleys are likely to face a huge bill to get this farm up and running again following the outbreak, although no official figures appear to exist to illustrate the likely cost of a post-bird flu clean-up operation on an egg production unit. The Ranger has spoken to a number of people with some knowledge of the clean-up process and the regulatory system in an attempt to gauge the likely financial impact of cleaning an infected site.

“Even on the smallest site, I would be very surprised if you got away with £100,000,” said Julian Sparrey of Livetec Systems. Livetec has a culling standby contract with the broiler industry that allows it to maintain equipment and technology to be used in the event of a notifiable disease outbreak. It was also involved in dealing with the AI outbreak in Hampshire in February this year. It managed the culling and clean up operation for Mackenzie Brothers, whose broiler breeder unit at Upham, near Winchester suffered an outbreak of a low path strain of the virus. Some 10,000 birds were culled.

The scale of the operation at Staveleys is much bigger. A total of 170,000 birds -120,000 cage and 50,000 free range – have been culled and the virus involved is a high path version. The cost of the clean-up at Preston is expected to be far higher than the bill for the clean-up in Hampshire. Julian Sparrey could not reveal the cost involved in the Upham outbreak, but on the infection near Preston he said, “I wouldn’t like to think what the cost will be there.”

Whilst the Government takes responsibility for the preliminary cleansing and disinfection of an affected site, the bill for the secondary cleansing and disinfection is borne by the farmer. The work involves not only cleaning out the sheds, but also the secure removal of the waste water from cleaning the sheds and the cost of dealing with the chicken litter.

A recent outbreak of bird flu involving a high path strain of the virus occurred in Yorkshire in November. A total of 6,000 birds were culled on a duck breeding unit at Nafferton, Driffield. The Ranger understands from other sources that the cost of the clean-up operation at Nafferton amounted to about £10 per bird.

Julian Sparrey agreed with our estimate that £10 per bird could well be a reasonable average to put on clean-up costs, although he said that the bill would vary depending on the circumstances at each individual farm. “It is very difficult to give a price per head because each farm will de different,” said Julian.

Cleaning out the sheds after avian influenza is, in itself, far more costly than a normal clean down. Steve Birchall told the Ranger that the cost of a single clean would be nearly 50 per cent more than usual because of the nature of the cleaning required and because of the restrictions placed on the workforce. “We have to be far more meticulous and the workers who are involved are not allowed to go to any other site for four or five days afterwards. That time has to be paid,” said Steve. For the secondary cleansing and disinfection the cleaning process has to be carried out twice, according to rules laid down by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Additional cleans may be required if APHA is not satisfied with the result.

The cleaning process can also be far more difficult in cage units – particularly in older buildings. The Ranger understands that some of the heaviest costs facing the Staveleys are for the cage units on the farm. There have been reports that the Staveleys may even be considering pulling some sheds down.

In addition to the bill for cleaning the sheds, there are other significant costs for any producer looking to recover from an outbreak. One of them is the cost of removing waste water. The waste water can only go to a site with the necessary environmental approvals. Julian Sparrey said that providing the necessary facilities to handle the water on site could cost £30,000 and finding a suitable treatment works to take the water nearby could also be a problem. “It is not always easy,” he said. “We were involved in one case where the nearest approved treatment works prepared to take the water was 400 miles away. There were a lot of tanker trips involved,” he said.

Once avian influenza has been confirmed on a farm, all movements to and from the site, as well as the clean-up operation, itself, are tightly controlled by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA). At Staveleys, the culling of the birds began on July 11 and was completed on July 14. Subsequent working restrictions are placed upon any catchers who have been involved in operations in the infected sheds. Like the cleaners, they are not allowed on another site for four or five days afterwards. There are reports of some worried producers telling catchers to stay away from their farms for up to three weeks after working on an infected site.Preliminary cleansing and disinfection at Staveleys was completed on the evening of July 16. It is the secondary cleansing and disinfection that are the responsibility of the farmer.

However, although the farmer is responsible, everything has to be agreed by animal health teams. Julian Sparrey says that the procedures are very stringent. “An approved process for the cleaning has to be agreed with animal health,” he said. “The procedure that is to be used is agreed and written down. Once that is done it becomes a legal document and if you divert from that at all you could be fined £6,000 and face a month in jail. That is how strict it is.”

He said that any piece of equipment entering or leaving the infected site would have to be licensed. Julian said that if he was to be managing an on-farm operation he would probably have portable buildings on the site for workers involved in the clean-up. Facilities would include showers so that the workers could clean themselves down at the end of the day and avoid carrying any infection off the affected farm.

He said that, during a bird flu outbreak, animal health would be on site constantly, checking and overseeing everything that was being done. Everything that needed to be done would require approval and cleaning would be closely monitored. “They will go around wearing white gloves. They will wipe their hands across a surface and if there is the slightest dirt you will be told to do it again,” said Julian. “It is a nightmare for anyone who is unfortunate enough to be affected. Animal Health people are all over you all day.”

The removal of litter was also closely monitored, he said. The muck could be stored on the farm, itself, although it would have to be stacked and covered in a bio-secure way – probably on hard standing so that no infection could leach out into the environment. It would have to be stored for a minimum of 42 days and, if it was stored on site, the farm could not be declared clean whilst it was there. After the 42 days the litter could be disposed of normally, he said.

Another option – one which had been used by some affected farmers – was to find somewhere away from the farm where the muck could be stored for the 42 days. The Ranger understands that the owner of the Yorkshire duck farm hit by AI in November last year made arrangements for the muck to be stored on an airfield.

Another alternative, said Julian, was to send the muck for rendering. This could be done straight away if a suitable plant could be found that was willing to take the litter, although the muck would have to be moved by approved transport to avoid cross-contamination. If this was done, said Julian, only relatively small amounts of litter could be moved at one time. The litter did not render easily on its own and so had to be mixed with other materials. There was also the issue of washing down trucks at the rendering plant to ensure that the virus was not passed on. Compared with stacking the litter, rendering is a more expensive option, although it allows the waste to be moved off farm quickly.

Egg producers will, of course, hope that they never have to deal with the devastating effects of bird flu. Julian Sparrey says that, whilst most people will never be affected, everyone should have plans in place in case the worst should happen. “Know beforehand exactly what you will do if it happens. Is there somewhere you would be able to store the litter away from the farm if you needed to, for example? It is best to be prepared.”

Some producers have made preparations by investing in AI insurance. The Ranger understands that the Staveleys were insured against possible outbreak. However, it would appear that existing insurance policies may well have underestimated the high costs of secondary cleansing and disinfection. Recent outbreaks have shown that the clean-up costs account for a very large part of the bill for an AI outbreak.

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