RALEIGH, N.C. — A turkey disease sweeping the country, especially along the East Coast, is threatening the turkey industry right at its peak season.
As the Thanksgiving holiday approached, researchers at North Carolina State University said they were working to help growers find out what is causing the disease, called "spiking mortality," and how to control it.
The disease strikes quickly, can kill thousands of turkeys in a week's time, possibly driving up turkey costs during this holiday season, according to the researchers.
"The disease has the potential to be devastating to the turkey industry," said John Barnes, professor of poultry medicine who is working with a team of researchers at North Carolina State's College of Veterinary Medicine and the Department of Poultry Science.
Spiking mortality began in North Carolina's Union County in 1991. It has since spread across North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia and as far away as Indiana and New York, the researchers said.
They said they are not sure whether spiking mortality is a new disease or simply missed over the years.
Trying to halt the spread, researcher James Guy, who is working with Barnes, has been able to recreate spiking mortality in a laboratory and has determined that two or more infectious agents are causing the disease--possibly one or more bacteria in combination with a virus.
North Carolina, the country's largest turkey producing state at nearly 61 million of the birds a year, suffered heavy losses this summer, Barnes said. He did not have figures for how many turkeys were lost, however.
Willie Featherstone, director of the Union County Cooperative Extension service, said some farmers were losing up to 1,000 birds a day.
"The disease generally strikes young birds between 7 and 28 days old. In early stages of the disease, the birds are active and vocal, but they quickly become depressed and stop eating and drinking," the researchers said, noting birds can lose up to 40% of their weight in four days.
"The birds that survive suffer from stunted growth and are more susceptible to other diseases," Guy said. Additional food and attention will bring such birds up to market standards.
Wholesale turkey prices are currently 73 cents a pound for toms and 70 cents a pound for hens, which is relatively high, said Thomas Carter, poultry science extension leader at North Carolina State.
"Although it is hard to say that spiking mortality has helped push prices up, there is no question that the disease has cut down the supply, and that it is having an impact at processing plants and with farmers," he said.
The researchers said they found the disease can be transmitted through feces and through direct contact--flies and beetles can be carriers--but it is not airborne.
They also have shown that aggressive management of flocks, careful feeding practices and precautions such as limiting traffic between barns and wearing protective clothing help control the spread of the disease.
They are now studying an antibiotic treatment. "Right now we need to find something to put a lid on this problem, so we can get back to the business of growing turkeys," Barnes said.