Bird flu killed a third of BC's egg-laying chickens last year

Avian influenza had a huge impact on 2023's egg production, and 2024 isn't in the clear yet

Avian influenza killed one-third of BC's egg-laying chickens last year. The industry's newest annual report shows exactly what that meant for farmers.

In 2023, BC's egg production plunged, leaving BC with 85.2 million fewer eggs than the previous year and production at its lowest point since at least 2017.

There is hope for 2024. If BC can avoid any more major outbreaks of bird flu, then egg production will rebound. But with migratory birds returning for the summer, chickens—and your egg supply—aren’t out of the woods yet.

The eggs

Despite the wide variety of eggs you may find in supermarket coolers—large premium brown, free-range organic white, free-run omega-3, extra large white, Grade A medium brown, etc.—there are really only two ways to make them: conventional chickens or specialty ones.

Conventional chickens are responsible for the bulk of BC’s production. Housed in communal wire cages, chickens in these barns make the cheapest egg option at the grocery counter. This is largely because so many chickens can fit into one barn, maximizing space even if it doesn’t let chickens act like natural birds.

Most conventional barns in BC are now being transitioned into enriched housing. This is a new standard for Canada’s least-expensive eggs, and lets chickens act a bit more like themselves. Although still housed in groups in a cage, each bird gets more space and has access to things like scratching pads, nest boxes, and perches.

The number of enriched facilities has exploded exponentially since 2019, with 1.7 million cartons of eggs coming from enriched chickens in 2017 increasing to 25.5 million cartons of enriched eggs in 2023. Canada’s goal is to phase out all conventional barns by 2036. BC producers are receiving financial incentives to move to enriched housing, as it often involves building a new barn or retrofitting an existing barn and building a new facility.

The other kind of eggs in BC’s market are specialty eggs. These eggs are also becoming much more popular, increasing from 19 million cartons in 2017 to 26.7 million cartons in 2023—nearly one-third of all BC eggs.

Specialty eggs come in three varieties: free-run, free-range, and organic. Free-run facilities give their chickens the run of a barn, which usually has a grated or sawdust-covered floor. Chickens can perch and use nest boxes, and eggs roll down to a conveyor belt because of the slightly sloped floors. Free-range facilities are almost identical, with the addition of a fenced outdoor space. Hens in these facilities need to be trained for a few months before they are able to go outside, but are guaranteed a certain amount of outside time over the course of their lives.

(Being outside provides many benefits, but it also comes with its own risks, including from hungry eagles.)

Organic farms are like free-range facilities, but are required to give the chickens more space. Organic farms must also follow specific rules, like ensuring birds are only fed certified organic feed and are never given antibiotics. (If a chicken gets sick and needs antibiotics, it’s demoted to a free-range hen until the antibiotics are cleared from its system.)

Despite the massive increase in specialty farms over the last six years, growth seems to be stalling. The reason comes down to two main factors: avian influenza and market demand.

The flu

According to BC Egg’s annual report, BC was one of the first provinces to push for cage-free eggs and BC’s chicken farmers are leading the way in the transition out of conventional chicken farming practices. (So far, 123 farms have switched to enriched housing.) But although the appetite for organic, free-range, and free-run eggs is there, people’s pocketbooks are not.

In 2021 and 2022, fewer people were looking to buy specialty eggs, largely because of supply chain disruptions and inflation. Although some of that demand started to come back in 2023, more and more people are turning to the more cost-effective conventional eggs.

Unfortunately for customers, egg production across the board took a dive in 2023 due to avian influenza—and conventional chickens were the hardest hit.

The most recent outbreak of avian flu began in December 2021, and has hit British Columbia the hardest of any Canadian province. In the last two years, 158 flocks have been decimated by the virus in BC, affecting more than six million poultry birds in all industries. In facilities where at least some of the chickens are dedicated to laying table eggs, 3.5 million birds had been killed. (Alberta, the next most affected province, has only had 1.86 million birds affected in total.)

There is no treatment for the avian influenza (also known as bird flu, H5N1, and AI). Although chickens can be vaccinated, it doesn’t eliminate the virus itself—and Canada’s response to animals who are infected is swift. Any chickens that have caught the disease or have been exposed to it are destroyed, and any animals that may have been exposed are monitored. Decontamination begins, and a strict quarantine is put into place.

(Although H5N1 has been found in dairy cattle in the United States, and viral particles have been identified in pasteurized milk, Canada hasn’t seen any cases of the severe illness in livestock. There was one domestic dog that tested positive in April of last year.)

The first outbreak of avian influenza wound down in January 2023. By that time, the virus had directly killed 59,112 birds in Fraser Valley commercial barns where at least some chickens were dedicated to laying. Roughly 3.4 million more birds were destroyed because of exposure to the virus.

(Birds are destroyed immediately after exposure, even if they haven’t yet tested positive, because avian influenza spreads extremely quickly in the tight confines of a chicken barn. It will also inevitably kill almost all the birds it infects.)

A chart showing the number of chickens killed due to avian influenza since September 20222

“At one point, we lost about a third of our birds to avian influenza,” BC Egg’s director of marketing and communications, Amanda Brittain, said. “It was a huge chunk.”

In the fall of last year, the organization was hopeful the worst was over. No new cases of avian flu showed up in any province over the summer. That September, BC Egg’s board of directors said they expected 2024’s egg production to return to normal.

Then, the flu came back.

A Chilliwack farm lost 1,021 laying hens to the virus on Oct. 18. By Oct. 22, they had destroyed 15,379 more. Many more farms followed.

“It was six weeks of birds just going down,” Brittain said. The surge didn’t end until after Christmas, and the quarantine restrictions are only now wrapping up. (The last Fraser Valley poultry facilities with quarantine restrictions were opened up in mid-March. Those four farms are still monitoring their birds.)

With the outbreak now over, and no new poultry farms infected since February, BC Egg hopes 2024 could be back on track.

What’s next

Despite all the chicken death last year, and the corresponding decline in egg production, customers might not have noticed a difference in their grocery stores. And that’s because there wasn’t much difference on the outside. Inside the industry, however, a different story was playing out.

Canada’s chicken industry, like the dairy industry, is run on a quota system. National boards decide how many eggs Canadians will likely want to eat in a year, and then dole out quota to each province. Egg producers are then told how many eggs they are able to sell in a year, and the chickens get to work laying.

“It’s all market demand,” Brittain explained. “I’m sure that it’s no surprise to you that the cost of groceries has gone up. Everything has gone up, including the price of eggs. And as a result … more people wanted the less-expensive eggs. And so we didn’t have enough caged eggs to offer the market.”

Traditionally, BC Egg hands out quota on a 200-hen-distribution system: each farmer gets 200 hens, and any remainder is handed out proportionally.

But in 2023, with conventional eggs high in demand and those farmers hit hard by avian influenza, BC Egg took a different approach. It opted to do proportional distribution only, so the biggest farms (typically conventional farms) got the most of the new chickens.

That may have helped with the market demand. But it wasn’t what allowed consumers to get eggs, despite the avian influenza impacts.

When a sudden egg shortage hits, graders can bring in eggs from out of province to bolster local production numbers. (Trade agreements also let American eggs into the province for use in products like ice cream.) Those out-of-province eggs meant that BC didn’t have any issues filling supermarket shelves, Brittain said.

The goal is that 2024 won’t see the need for any Albertan eggs to keep up with the demand—a demand that BC Egg hopes will increase. (The marketing board has an ambitious plan to have everyone eating 300 eggs by 2030. The plan, called Crack 300, aims to have each person eating three additional eggs each year until they hit their goal.)

So far, the outlook for 2024 is good, egg-wise. But six million chickens is a lot of dead birds for one province. And with wild birds migrating back for the summer, more chicken deaths are potentially on the horizon.

“We’re cautiously optimistic for spring 2024,” Brittain said. But, she added, “we’re not out of the woods yet.”

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