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Avian Influenza, Biosecurity and Organic Poultry Production

By Jane Morrigan, M.Sc.

Bird flu, otherwise known as avian influenza or A.I., has become a topic of concern for poultry farmers and human health officials around the world in recent months and years. Canada has not experienced the deadly H5N1 strain that has spread from Asia to Europe, however in 2004 British Columbia had a taste of it when it was faced with another highly pathogenic North American strain known as H7N3, which forced the slaughter of 17 million birds in a 70-kilometre area that covered Vancouver's eastern suburbs to Chilliwack in the eastern Fraser Valley. The outbreak and subsequent depopulation of laying hens, chickens and turkeys caused tremendous financial and emotional hardship for farmers who had no choice but to submit their flocks to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA)’s decision to control the spread of the disease by killing off flocks that were either directly infected or were located within a close vicinity of infected flocks. Organic and conventional producers were equally affected, and there were mixed reviews as to whether the government handled the outbreak properly. Issues such as financial compensation for affected farmers, relative risks associated with free-range versus confined flocks and the humaneness of methods used to euthanize flocks are still being discussed two years later.

Because of the spread of H5N1 in Europe, the CFIA recently formed a new branch called the Office of Animal Biosecurity, and is currently in the process of increasing its efforts to prevent and, if necessary, control an H5N1 outbreak should it occur in Canada. New biosecurity standards will ultimately be developed and will affect all poultry producers large and small, conventional and organic.

In this regard, the OACC offers some general comments, specific questions, concerns and recommendations regarding the process of developing new biosecurity standards. It is hoped that they will be useful in promoting discussion of the issues among organic and conventional producers. Please refer to the suggested readings and links to websites for additional information. In addition, we have been in touch with CFIA and made them aware of our concerns, in particular that solid scientific evidence be used regarding biosecurity measures aimed at preventing the introduction and spread of H5N1in Canada.

General Comments
The term “backyard flocks” has been used to generalize all those domestic flocks that exist outside of the conventional model, yet this term is inadequate to describe the great variety of such flocks, and the valuable service and contribution they make. For instance, certified organic producers of eggs, broilers, turkeys, etc operate under strict food safety and animal welfare standards, in response to a growing demand from consumers for antibiotic-and-chemical-free meat from humanely-raised animals. There are also bird fanciers, pigeon breeders and other poultry enthusiasts who contribute enormously to preserving genetic strains of species that otherwise might be lost. There are niche market farmers, producing freezer-trade broilers, roasters and turkeys, quail, ducks and geese. There are agricultural colleges such as the Nova Scotia Agricultural College (NSAC) where students learn about animal breeding, physiology and farm management by having hands-on experience with laying hens, broilers and heritage poultry. And…there are countless small household flocks of “meat birds” and laying hens which provide home-grown food for many rural Canadian families. I suggest that the term, “free-range and small-flocks” be used rather than “backyard flocks”.

There is an increasing demand in Canada and elsewhere for chemical-free food and consequently organic production is growing. More Canadian farmers could benefit by meeting this market opportunity. The organic production system can be seen to represent a solution rather than a problem for the egg and chicken industries, because it gives consumers what they want, while ensuring excellent food quality, as well as providing benefits to the animals in terms of their health and welfare. For instance, laying hens benefit from access to perches and dust-bathing materials when not confined to cages. They can then express important natural behaviours such as avoidance of aggressive birds and exploration of their surroundings indoors and outside during summer months.

By extrapolating figures from the Canadian Organic Growers (COG) report for 20048, combined with figures from the Canadian Egg Marketing Agency (CEMA) and Chicken Producers of Canada (CFC), the estimate of the number of organic poultry producers in Canada in 2006 is approximately 180 out of a total of 4080. Therefore, certified organic producers represent approximately 4.4% of all commercial poultry producers in Canada.

I have observed a trend for both conventional producers and government officials to approach the prospect of an H5N1 outbreak with the assumption that there are no problems with the status quo and that the threat is only of a foreign disease outbreak. In my view, this assumption warrants a second look because it can lead to denial of problems “at home”. I suggest that CFIA and all stakeholders engage in constructive self-examination of practices and norms in order to cover all the bases in improving biosecurity throughout the whole system.

In consulting with organic specialists across the country, I have heard that certified organic poultry farmers are of the opinion that there is strong evidence that the cause of the H5N1 virus has been the conventional system of intensive production and the spread has been through trading routes and not migratory routes of wild birds. Further, they believe that their certified organic system model is a solution to the problem.

I have noted a lack of awareness by conventional producers and government officials about free-range and small-flock holders. To be fair, in other venues I have noted a similar lack of awareness by free-range and small-flock producers about conventional producers. Veterinarians and egg and chicken producers in attendance at a national forum I attended agreed that “backyard flocks” are a threat. The extra capital costs spent by conventional producers increases the likelihood of resentment toward free-range flocks as “backyard flocks”. Since stereotypes and prejudices usually exist alongside lack of awareness, a meaningful dialogue between these two distinct types of producers is necessary so as to overcome misconceptions and foster cooperation in preparing safeguards against the potential threat of an H5N1 outbreak in Canada.

It is important that decisions made by CFIA in regard to biosecurity policy affecting certified organic poultry production will be based on scientific evidence. The impression that current rules tend to be arbitrary and prescriptive can be improved with more flexible rules that are clearly related to scientific evidence.


  • What measures does the CFIA propose to improve the overall health and welfare of intensively raised poultry to protect them from an HP virus?
  • What measures does the CFIA propose to use regarding the potential euthanasia of flocks affected by an AI outbreak, that would ensure a minimum of suffering for the birds?


  • CFIA found no HP strain in wild birds in Canada in the latest 2006 survey. More research is required in the ecology of AI viruses in wild birds, to clarify the issue of risk from wild birds.
  • H5N1 spreads most efficiently in large flocks, and there is a low risk of transmission by wild birds and/or outdoor domestic flocks5,6
  • Loss of genetic diversity in domestic poultry is already raising alarm bells3,7
  • Some hatcheries throughout the world are not registered (as they are in Canada) to avoid outbreaks such as occurred in Nigeria in 20053
  • The best way to prevent loss on farms is through surveillance, but farmers need compensation if their flock is depopulated by CFIA. Farmers are more likely to cooperate with CFIA efforts to prevent and/or contain an outbreak if they are assured of financial compensation from the Canadian public through the CFIA.
  • Consultation, cooperation and partnership with industry large and small, organic and conventional, is necessary in order to bring about a balanced, realistic and fair set of standards and protocols that farmers will support.
  • Organic production standards are very high for the health and welfare of poultry raised by certified organic farmers, and all eggs and chickens sold by them must be killed in a licensed, government-inspected facility. Therefore, regular surveillance of birds killed in these facilities will detect problems and safeguard the public.
  • CFIA may be seen by some to have the view that all flocks which are defined outside the category of “conventional/commercial” are to be considered expendable in a large biosecurity program aimed at circumventing a possible outbreak of H5N1 in Canada. To address this concern, CFIA could proceed with the approach of developing new rules that differentiate between the issues of conventional producers and all others such as those mentioned above.

Recommendations to CFIA

  • Address the development of standards to improve biosecurity for conventional/commercial operations, with the full partnership of the producer associations and marketing boards. This would be one working group.
  • Seek a meaningful dialogue with as many non-conventional/commercial flock-holders as possible, through your website, news articles etc., and through consultations/partnerships with formal associations and organizations such as the OACC, Canadian Organic Growers (COG), Certified Organic Associations of British Columbia (COABC), l'Association de Biodynamie du Québec, BC Specialty Birds Association, etc, to develop standards or ways and means of ensuring biosecurity in small/outdoor flocks. This would be a second working group.
  • Include representatives of organic poultry producers on an overall Advisory Committee. “Buy-in” by organic and free-range producers will be a hard-sell unless they have input and can conclude that CFIA proposals are affordable and realistic, and in particular that any restrictions proposed in new standards affecting them must be scientifically sound.
  • Develop a vaccination program for outdoor flocks to mitigate the hazard and/or encourage organic and free-range producers to initiate a voluntary program to monitor the health of outdoor flocks, through regular random testing of birds and a vaccination program. This action could go a long way to addressing the concerns of conventional producers.
  • Ban feeding of “litter” (i.e., animal by-product meal) in poultry rations, and use biosecurity concerns as trade barrier re imported feedstuffs and food products containing meat from chickens fed “litter”, in order to prevent introduction of H5N1 via imported chicken products.
  • Tighten up trade and transport routes in order to minimize spread of disease3,6
  • New standards for biosecurity should address humane methods of disposal of flocks where this becomes necessary.
  • Request that the CRTC and other federal agencies make high-speed internet access available/affordable to rural Canadians so that education and crucial communication regarding health risks and disease management/containment can be expedited easily and efficiently.
  • In consultation with officials in Quebec, encourage provinces to provide funding for moveable greenhouses and other technologies for organic and free-range producers.

Suggested Readings, Websites

1. Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) media release, September 13, 2006. No Asian Strains of Avian Influenza Detected to date in Canada's 2006 Wild Bird Survey http://wildlife1.usask.ca/en/aiv/aiv_latest_results.php

2. GRAIN. Fowl play: The poultry industry’s central role in the bird flu crisis. GRAIN, February 2006. http://www.grain.org/go/birdflu

3. Swayne, D.; Lee, C-W; Spackman, E. Inactivated North American and European H5N2 avian influenza virus vaccines protect chickens from Asian H5N1 high pathogenicity avian influenza virus. Avian Pathology, Vol. 35, Number 2, April 2006, pp.141-146.

4. Ho, M-W. Fowl play in bird flu. Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) press release, May 5, 2006. http://www.i-sis.org.uk/Fowl-Play-in-Bird-Flu.php

5. World’s Poultry Science Journal. Involvement of free-flying wild birds in the spread of the viruses of avian influenza, Newcastle disease and infectious bursal disease from poultry products to commercial poultry. World’s Poultry Science Journal, Vol. 61, Number 2, June 2005, pp. 198-214.

6. Blythman, J. So who’s really to blame for bird flu? The Guardian, June 7, 2006.

7. Siegel, P.B., and Qureshi, M.A. Conservation of avian genetic resources: Current opportunities and challenges – A summary. Poultry Science 85:255-257.

8. Macey, A. Canadian Organic Production in Canada 2004. Canadian Organic Growers (COG), 2004.


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