An international trade protocol has been developed to handle situations of disease in livestock and poultry in a major exporting country.  Now that highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) has been found in flocks of turkeys in the U.S., countries have to follow through on those commitments.  The U.S. supply of poultry meat is too important to the world market to shut it out of trade.

The H5N2 strain poses little threat to humans, although it is highly contagious among birds.  So far no humans have been infected according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  The disease has been found in turkey flocks in Minnesota, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas.  None of the birds from the affected flocks has entered the food chain.  This is the same strain of HPAI as found in backyard and wild birds in Washington, Oregon and Idaho; the H5N8 strain has also been found in California in commercial poultry.  The couple in Canada that contracted the flu in China has the H7N9 strain.

This is the first instance of APHI in commercial poultry in the U.S. since 2004 and the biggest outbreak since 1997.  Arkansas, Minnesota, Missouri and Kansas are all along the Mississippi migratory wild bird flight path suspected to be the source of the recent infections.  To contain any further spread, a six-mile quarantine is established around affected farms, with all poultry operations within the area monitored.

The World Health Organization has determined that HPAI viruses can survive in raw poultry, so it is possible to spread them via fresh or frozen products.  The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of USDA has informed the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and trading partners of the outbreaks.  USDA is also encouraging trading partners to follow OIE standards and minimize trade disruptions.

OIE guidelines require trading partners to base government restrictions on sound science and limit trade restrictions to a defined region or area that is at risk of spreading the disease.  That is a key issue for the U.S. to maintain trade.  HPAI among turkeys in Minnesota is no reason to stop trade in broilers from the Delmarva Peninsula or Georgia.

In January, China did exactly what should not be done – it banned imports of all U.S. poultry and eggs after the California discovery; even though it is a major buyer of U.S. turkey and chicken.  Hong Kong officials did the exact opposite in banning imports of poultry meat and products from a single county in Missouri.  Most countries ban an entire state.  More than 40 countries banned poultry imports from Minnesota after HPAI was found.

Mexico, the largest U.S. export market at 18 percent for broilers and 64 percent for turkey meat, took the usual approach of first banning poultry products from California and then Minnesota.  Mexico has had its own intensive three-year battle with HPAI.  Its low-income category of consumers depends on poultry meat and eggs as major sources of protein.  Mexico can neither afford a re-infection of HPAI free areas nor cutoff too many sources of supplies in the U.S.

Countries that have imposed bans include the EU and most of Central America. Canada has banned the import of all poultry products from five U.S. states – California, Idaho, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington.

About 12 percent of U.S. turkey production and 18 percent of broiler production are expected to be exported this year.  According to estimates by the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) of USDA, about 10.5 million metric tons (MMT) of boilers were traded in 2014, with the U.S. supplying 3.3 MMT, 31 percent.  The number one supplier, Brazil, moved 3.6 MMT.  The EU was the third largest at 1.1 MMT, followed by Thailand at about 0.5 MMT.  Japan was the number one buyer at 0.9 MMT.

Turkey meat is not estimated by country, but the U.S. is thought to be the biggest producer at 6.0 MMT in 2014, with exports of 0.8 MMT, two-thirds of which go to Mexico.

In terms of markets for U.S. poultry meat, Mexico was by far the biggest in 2014 at 970,000 metric tons (MT), 24 percent of the 4.1 MMT of poultry meat and products (excluding eggs) exported.  Hong Kong was a distant number two at 340,000 MT.  China was number three at 240,000 MT, closely followed by Angola and Canada.

While the disruptions in production from HPAI have been in turkeys, the bigger issue is broilers.  Regionalization again is key from a trade standpoint.  Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama are in the Mississippi flyway for migratory birds, but the east coast production centers are not.  But the industry is not waiting for that.  They are working with state Departments of Agriculture and USDA to further improvements in biosecurity.

Beef and pork producers in the U.S. and around the world have a stake in these developments.  As poultry prices come under more pressure, they may drag down beef and pork prices depending on how long current import bans by countries remain in effect and if more countries impose bans.  Broiler meat is not a perfect substitute for red meat, but at some price it will occur, particularly with beef at record higher prices.

With more consumers trade dependent for their daily food supplies, this is a critical test of the food safety procedures around the world.  Regardless of the outcomes, procedures will likely need to fine tuned to deal with future disease problems.

Ross Korves is a Trade and Economic Policy Analyst with Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade and @World_Farmers on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.