There will be no live poultry exhibitions at the Minnesota State Fair this year after the Minnesota Board of Animal Health on Friday ordered all exhibits featuring birds canceled to stem the spread of bird flu.
The directive, in effect through the end of the year, also prohibits exhibitions at county fairs, swap meets, petting zoos and sales.
The order was issued as bird flu continues to spread across Minnesota, although at a much slower pace in the last week. Nearly 90 farms have been impacted by the highly lethal avian influenza H5N2 since March. Two new cases were announced Thursday and one on Friday, state officials said.
“Taking this step made sense,” said Beth Thompson, assistant director of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health. “We need to do everything possible to get rid of this virus, and preventing the commingling of birds from different farms is one way to do that.”
While highly contagious and deadly to poultry, the bird flu is not a food safety hazard and is a very low risk for human health.
“Some 4-H’ers will be disappointed that they won’t be able to show their poultry projects at fairs this summer,” said Brad Rugg, director of the University of Minnesota’s Extension 4-H and State Fair animal science program.
“Part of our job developing the next generation of agriculture leaders includes teaching youth best practices to ensure the health and safety of the animals they raise,” he said, “and this is that learning being put into action in the real world.”
Fair organizations in surrounding states are also considering whether to show poultry.
Rugg said that about 3,200 youngsters across Minnesota participate in the 4-H poultry program, and that 250 bring their birds to the State Fair. He and others are exploring alternate learning activities for students who won’t be able to show off their poultry projects.
State Fair general manager Jerry Hammer said that about 2,250 birds are usually exhibited in the sheep and poultry barn each year. In lieu of the birds, he said, the barn will feature interactive displays and presentations about Minnesota’s poultry industry and its contribution to the state’s economy.
“This is a critical time for Minnesota’s poultry industry, and we’ll do whatever it takes to help,” Hammer said.
He noted that throughout its 160-year history, State Fair livestock shows have been modified, restricted or even canceled for animal health reasons. The most recent example was in April 2014 when no regional horses were displayed during the Minnesota Horse Expo because of an equine virus.
The action to cancel all poultry shows comes 10 weeks after the first case of bird flu was reported on a turkey farm in Polk County.
Poultry industry and animal health officials have expressed hope that the rate of infection might slow down once the weather warmed, because the virus does not survive in heat and sunlight. Minnesota had several consecutive days recently with no new reports, but two additional cases — a commercial turkey farm in Meeker County and an egg-laying farm in Renville County — were announced on Thursday, and another commercial turkey farm in Kandiyohi County on Friday.
The state now has 85 confirmed and three pending cases of bird flu in 21 counties, four of them egg-laying chicken operations and the rest turkey farms. More than 5.7 million birds have died or been euthanized, not including the pending cases. The flu often kills just a minority of the birds on each farm, but all turkeys or chickens on a site are usually killed out of precaution.
Iowa has 52 bird flu cases in 14 counties, including two new cases in farms raising chicks to become layer hens. South Dakota announced Thursday its first chicken farm with 1.3 million egg layers, adding to other cases on turkey farms.
Steve Olson, executive director of trade groups for Minnesota’s turkey growers and egg farmers, said he supports the decision to halt poultry exhibitions. The spread of the disease may be slowing slightly, he said, but it’s not over.
Experts have said they worry that even if the spread slows to a crawl this spring there could be another outbreak in the fall.
“I hope it slows down and I would expect it to slow down, but it’s just tough to say definitively when that’s going to happen,” Olson said.