In Ontario, worries of an even deadlier pandemic start with chickens

The Ontario government and the poultry industry are stressing biosecurity at their first meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic began almost three years ago, with the hope that farmers' actions today might stop an even deadlier pandemic before it starts.

The talk among poultry farmers isn't 'if' H5N1 arrives in Ontario this spring, but 'when'

A man walking past a picture of a commercial chicken

The Ontario government and the province's poultry industry are putting renewed focus on biosecurity at their first meeting in the three years since the COVID-19 pandemic began, with the hope farmers' actions today might stop an even deadlier pandemic before it begins.

Until this year, the National Poultry Show in London, Ont., was traditionally held in April. But as infections and losses among domestic flocks continue to add up from the highly pathogenic avian flu, or H5N1, the event was moved to early February to get the message out before wild birds start their spring migration.

With farms still under quarantine in B.C.'s Fraser Valley and outbreaks in Quebec last summer, the talk among poultry farmers in London, at the industry's largest gathering in Canada, isn't about "if" the virus arrives, but "when."

At this year's show, authorities aren't taking any chances on their messaging to farmers and the important role they play in preventing the spread of H5N1 — especially after a Spanish mink farm was decimated by the virus in what might be the first documented case of mammal-to-mammal transmission of the illness.

H5N1 could make COVID-19 look mild

"The fact that we're seeing that mammal-to-mammal infection is a concern — we're mammals," said Al Dam, a poultry specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA).

fake chicken in a wire pen

It's why OMAFRA now discourages live poultry shows and livestock auctions, while encouraging all poultry and swine workers to get the flu shot — to prevent human flu strains from mixing with their avian or porcine counterparts and a potential zoonotic leap along with it.

If avian flu ever made the leap to humans, the result could make the COVID-19 pandemic look mild.

Since 2003, there have been 240 human cases of the virus in four Pacific region countries. Of these, 135 were fatal, giving the virus a case fatality rate of 56 per cent, according to the World Health Organization. The most recent human case was detected in China last fall. The patient died in less than a month.

"We have to push a hard message," Dam said. "People don't realize, it's not just their little fish bowl."

Even a small misstep, such as forgetting to change boots or tools between barns, can result in life-changing consequences on the farm. A single case of avian flu detected on a chicken, turkey or duck farm would result in Canadian Food Inspection Agency officials imposing a 10-kilometre quarantine, before euthanizing every single animal.

Hospital cleaner for use on the farm

That fact isn't lost on farmers like Brock Wiebe, who works on his family's chicken farm in St. Marys, Ont., where they depend on a flock of 14,000 birds to make a living.

A man holding a VR headset

"We're anxious but we're taking every precaution we can because it can wipe out your whole flock," Wiebe said.

Biosecurity has become such big business in agriculture that it's prompted entrepreneurs such as Mark Bevan to make a foray from health care to agriculture.

Bevan is president of EthoGuard, a company that's found a flourishing business selling disinfectant, personal protective equipment, biosecurity training for farmers — even cleaning up after an avian flu outbreak.

"Biosecurity has an increasing importance," Bevan said. "The reality that we're in right now with avian influenza, it's even more important to reduce your risk of getting it on your farm.

"Influenza, unfortunately, is becoming a bit of a norm now."

The company's marquis product is Prevail, a stabilized hydrogen peroxide product that was first developed for hospitals during the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis. As avian flu and swine fever began to increasingly threaten farms a decade ago, Bevan said he and his business partners saw an opportunity they couldn't pass up.

"The technology is called accelerated hydrogen peroxide. It's a Canadian invention actually," he said. "It's seen as the most effective choice. It's a very quick contact time for killing pathogens, but the real magic is it's actually a cleaner as well."

Bevan said since introducing the product in agriculture, business has grown, but Prevail is still a minor player. He hopes to one day replicate the success the chemical has seen in hospitals, where it's as indispensable as rubber gloves.


Colin Butler


Colin Butler covers the environment, real estate, justice as well as urban and rural affairs for CBC News in London, Ont. He is a veteran journalist with 20 years' experience in print, radio and television in seven Canadian cities. You can email him at

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