The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets has issued an order banning all live fowl competitions at the Great New York State Fair and at all county fairs in New York, Commissioner of Agriculture Richard A. Ball announced today. The order is the direct result of the continuing spread of strains of highly pathogenic avian influenza in the Midwest.

Central New York
Onondaga County, New York/David Benbennick

“Avian influenza has not yet been detected in New York State, but it is a very serious threat to poultry and all breeds of fowl and is continuing to spread. Despite the efforts of the best poultry health experts in North America, we do not fully understand the cause of the rapid spread of this virus. This commonsense step will help limit the spread of the influenza to other farms and chickens,” said Commissioner Ball.

“Fowl at fairs come from many different farms. An infection in one farm’s fowl could spread easily and quickly to birds from other farms at fairs. If exposure to avian influenza virus happens at a fair, birds returning to their home farms will quickly spread the virus to many new locations. It’s critical to prevent this rapid dispersal of this disease, and this is an unfortunate but necessary action,” said Dr. Smith.

The ban covers all breeds of fowl, including chickens, pigeons, turkeys, pheasants, guinea fowl, bantam poultry, geese, and ducks. Exhibitors who have already registered fowl for the 2015 New York State Fair will be contacted and will receive a refund of their entry fees.

“This is a disappointment to us as well as to fairgoers and our exhibitors, who look forward to this competition every year. But we believe people understand that we are stewards of the animals in our care and I know they understand that we’re doing what’s best for everyone, and especially for the birds,” said Troy Waffner, Acting Fair Director.

The Fair has already made plans to fill the space in the Poultry Barn normally used for displaying chickens with rabbits and cavies, and the daily rooster crowing contest will be replaced by a rabbit hopping demonstration on seven days. There will be a special demonstration on Tuesday, Sept. 1 of combing and cutting fur from angora rabbits and spinning the fur into yarn to make hats and mittens.

While the current strains of avian influenza circulating in the Midwest are extraordinarily deadly to birds, experts stress that the H5N2 and H5N8 strains are not a threat to humans. Officials stress that chicken and eggs are safe to eat. Food safety experts all recommend that chicken must be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees and that raw poultry must be properly handled to protect against all types of food-borne illness. Inspectors from the New York State Department of Health are on-site throughout the Fair, performing daily inspections of food stands.

The ban extends to all chartered county fairs and youth fairs in New York State. There are 45 county fairs and 6 chartered youth shows for the fair season that runs from June through October.

Several states have banned poultry competitions and exhibitions at fairs, including West Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, and Minnesota. Ohio has banned poultry entries from states affected by the virus outbreak and may consider a complete ban on competitions and displays.

Avian influenza outbreaks are not uncommon, but the current outbreak is particularly deadly to birds. The outbreak is concentrated in two strains of influenza – H5N2 and H5N8. Influenza has been found on more than 170 farms in 20 states in the West, Midwest, and South and 2 Canadian provinces. More than 35 million birds have died or been euthanized as a result of what officials call the largest avian influenza outbreak in U.S. history.

New York has taken a strongly proactive stand with suppliers, distributors, and live bird markets in attempting to prevent the spread of avian influenza and prevent birds with influenza from crossing into the state. Bird flocks intended for the live bird sales market must test negative for avian influenza before they can move into the marketing system. Once birds are in the marketing system, state officials verify test records and monitor sanitation levels at the live bird markets.

Employees of the Department’s Division of Animal Industry routinely test poultry in live bird markets for avian influenza. In 2014, approximately 35,000 birds in the New York live bird marketing system were tested for the disease. Any bird that tests positive is traced back to its original flock to address possible infections. Any market that tests positive for influenza is depopulated of birds, and thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. It cannot open until passing an inspection and test for avian influenza.