Canadian food processors brace for the impact of avian influenza

– OPINION – By Paul Tolnai Food safety, traceability, and supplier management systems are key…

– OPINION –

By Paul Tolnai

Food safety, traceability, and supplier management systems are key to building resilience as the risk of outbreak, supply shortages and rising cost threaten poultry product producers. 

For the Canadian poultry industry, reports of the avian influenza outbreak reaching farms in Newfoundland and Labrador in December of 2021 was a clear sign of trouble to come. Poultry farmers are on high alert to control the outbreak in their flocks as they recall the resulting devastation from the virus in 2014-2015.  

This latest, highly pathogenic strain of bird flu now threatens food businesses across Canada as well as poultry and wild migratory waterfowl populations, food affordability, and in rare cases human health. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has outlined the nation’s plan for emergency prevention, preparedness and response to the outbreak, and is working with provincial governments to support affected businesses and the food industry in maintaining enhanced biosecurity levels to meet this threat. Food manufacturers are prepared to navigate the challenges presented by outbreaks with the right safety, traceability and supplier management systems to mitigate risk through these unprecedented challenges. 

Vigilant control measures prevent infection
The current wave of reported avian influenza outbreaks in Canada started with small non-poultry flocks in Newfoundland exhibition farmhouses. Since then, reports of infection have moved from east to west affecting various avian species. The outbreak sweeping across North America has impacted nearly all Canadian provinces, with Alberta and Ontario reporting a combined total of over 1.4 million birds infected. When avian flu is detected at a farm, the CFIA takes control to place restrictions on who can access the facility as it is placed under quarantine. The affected flock is then humanely depopulated and destroyed to reduce the chance of a wide-spread outbreak that could affect producers in the surrounding area. Since the first reported Canadian outbreak, over 1.8 million birds have been euthanized.  

Highly pathogenic avian influenza needs to be reported as soon as producers suspect or confirm a case in their flocks so actions can be taken to reduce the spread. Canadian poultry and egg farmers have enhanced on-farm biosecurity measures, limiting exposure of flocks with quarantine measures to reduce the spread of the disease.  

Facilities have reduced the number of individuals entering the premises, and require the use of personal protective equipment while tending to flocks moved indoors to prevent infection from migratory birds carrying the virus. As of May 5, the CFIA has restricted poultry products in affected regions from entering Canada, including raw poultry, poultry products, by-products, eggs and raw pet foods sourced, processed or packaged from restricted zones in 18 states with reported outbreaks.  

Communities have been advised to remove bird feeders and bird baths as poultry are contracting the virus through infected migrating wild birds. The disease poses a risk to commercial producers, but also to breeders and backyard bird keepers. Exposure to avian influenza can be devastating to operations of all sizes.  

Digitized systems keep businesses resilient
Cloud-based software systems offer poultry producers with more assurances in emergency situations, beyond preventive controls for biohazards such as avian influenza. Businesses are able to monitor critical real-time data on production, inspections, and nonconformities as they happen to respond quickly when any issues arise.  

When all information is centralized in a cloud-based system, companies maintain audit-readiness to allow them to focus on preventing potential outbreaks that could be devastating to their business. Food processors that utilize an integrated and automated corrective actions infrastructure can ensure that the proper interventions are initiated immediately, providing clear direction on the responsibilities that staff must fulfill. Both on-farm and post-farm biosecurity measures can be locked in and reinforced with automatic notifications to ensure teams are always informed and contributing to overall safety, both at the facility and to its customers.  

In the event of an outbreak, natural disaster, or any other kind of emergency that requires producers to migrate from one farm to another, having all critical business data and systems accessible from any internet-ready device gives operators peace of mind that teams can pick up production once flocks are restored. 

“Never before has the modern supply chain network seen the challenges which face food producers today.”

With war in Eastern Europe, labor costs spiking, delays in the non-food supply chain spilling over to essential goods, and now Avian-Influenza, never before has the modern supply chain network seen the challenges which face food producers today.  Small and medium-sized food manufacturers are getting squeezed out of the market place if they continue with business as usual. The recently announced Supply Management Processing Investment Fund for Canadian dairy and poultry processors could not have come at a better time as the industry now demands innovation and adaptation for survival. 

Automation technology gives food manufacturers of all sizes a foothold of security in uncertain times. Traceability is critical for businesses to know who touched a product and when it happened. Businesses can reduce the impacts to their business by paying close attention to where they get their stock from and be prepared for possible supply disruptions 

Food businesses can build flexibility by developing strong alternative supplier links. This is where a unified supplier management system can provide leverage to plan for contingency, and keep production uptime at its full potential. Smart supplier management systems help food manufacturers trend lead times to factor into purchasing decisions to meet customer demand.  

Oversight is paramount to protecting profitability
The spread of avian influenza is one of many unprecedented emergencies to hit the food industry in recent years, and one that raises the stakes for traceability and food safety. Through intelligent and centralized cloud-based solutions, food processors are able to respond to challenges with agility.  

Canada’s 2022 Food Price Report predicted a 5 percent to 7 percent increase in food costs. Combined with the skyrocketing cost of fuel affecting essentially all ingredients and materials needed for production, food businesses need to make the best use of inventory to reduce stale product, waste, and returns. Food manufacturers need to execute a complex plan for purchasing and production, as well monitor real-time production run cost to maximize margins and avoid offloading of cost to consumers where possible.  

“Increasingly, R&D Departments will be called on to have multiple formulas to avoid price spikes and supply chain interruptions.“

It’s always been good business practice to have backup suppliers, however with the volatility of the marketplace due to all these events, businesses will have to look elsewhere for creative solutions.  Increasingly, research and development departments will be called on to have multiple formulas to avoid price spikes and supply chain interruptions. A company’s ability to quickly find and qualify alternative vendors will play an important factor in maintaining market share. Smart businesses will also diversify their market share, so that in the event demand for one of their products dries up, they have alternative markets to maintain business momentum. 

While the increased cost of chicken as an ingredient may be unavoidable through these unprecedented events, food manufacturers are able reap the benefits of cloud-based solutions to reduce safety and quality control costs, reduce admin and support costs, shorter audit preparation and duration times. Automated data-driven food production software solutions allow poultry producers to successfully manage compliance and costs, as well as improve the capacity and capability of its lean workforce to protect their bottom line in emergency situations.

Paul Tolnai

About the author: Paul Tolnai is business development manager for Icicle Technologies Inc. Tolnai is an experienced food industry professional with more than 20 years of experience managing highly regulated food production operations. As business development manager at Icicle Technologies Inc., he drives success by introducing food companies to the digital solutions that help make their lives easier. 

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Canadian food processors brace for the impact of avian influenza