Avian flu hits 3 more farms with Hormel ties

Published 10:30 am Tuesday, April 14, 2015

By Tribune Content Agency and Austin Daily Herald

Hormel Foods Corp. has acknowledged that highly pathogenic H5N2 flu has affected three more of its Minnesota turkey supply sites, bringing the total to seven.

The Minnesota Turkey Growers Association has also put a dollar value on flu-related turkey losses so far at $15.7 million.

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So far, 14 Minnesota turkey farms have been hit by the bird flu, leading to the destruction of 900,000 birds. Half of those 14 Minnesota farms are tied to Hormel, owner of the well-known Jennie-O turkey brand.

Hormel representatives have declined to comment directly on the outbreak but pointed to the company’s food safety measures at Jennie-O as a sign it remains committed to food safety.

“HPAI is an animal health issue, not a food safety issue,” Michelle M. Kromm, chief veterinarian for Hormel, said in a statement on the Jennie-O website, foodsafety.jennieo.com. “Please rest assured that your Jennie-O products are safe to eat and always remember to follow proper handling and cooking instructions.”

Jennie-O had a big quarter in Hormel’s 2015 first quarter, accounting for 18 percent of net sales after increasing operating profit by 56 percent and dollar sales by 10 percent.

Farms in Lyon and Cottonwood counties — both announced on Friday to have been struck by the flu — are independent, or contract, farms that supply birds to Hormel. A contract farm raises company-owned turkeys and uses company-owned feed. A stricken farm in Watonwan County, also revealed Friday, is directly owned by Hormel.

One other Hormel-owned farm, a massive operation with 310,000 birds in Meeker County, has also been devastated by H5N2. Hormel relies on Minnesota and Wisconsin for its turkeys. Still, the number of birds killed makes up only a small percentage of Jennie-O’s production, the company says on its website.

On Monday, it was announced the lethal bird flu sweeping Minnesota turkey farms touched down for the first time at a major chicken farm, an egg-laying operation in Wisconsin.

It is the first time that Wisconsin was hit with the virus.

Federal and Wisconsin regulators confirmed on Monday the bird flu’s presence in a flock of 200,000 chickens at a farm in Jefferson County, between Madison and Milwaukee in southeastern Wisconsin.

The H5N2 virus has been particularly hard on turkeys since it broke out earlier this year in the United States. But chickens are susceptible, too, and the Upper Midwest has many commercial egg-laying farms.

Iowa is the nation’s largest egg producer, while Minnesota is seventh, according to the American Egg Board, a trade group.