Manchester Farms takes precautions to protect flock from avian flu

Cornbread and tasso stuffed Manchester Farms quail, buttermilk-fried legs, roasted fingerling sweet potatoes and braised collard greens from SNOB Chef Russ Moore. Wade Spees/Staff Tuesday, February 3, 2015

South Carolina’s Manchester Farms, the nation’s largest quail producer, has closed its facility to visitors in hopes of protecting its flocks from the avian flu sweeping through the Midwest.

“We have decided to only allow our staff on farm,” owner Brittney Miller says. “You don’t know if visitors have yard birds or not, and the risk is too high right now.”

Since December 2014, the outbreak has extended to 179 farms in 15 states, including Missouri and Arkansas. There is no vaccine for the disease, so the only way to control its spread is to kill sick and healthy birds wherever it’s detected: According to the USDA, more than 40 million birds have been destroyed since the epidemic began.

“It is a catastrophe,” one of the federal government’s cleanup contractors last week told NPR.

While the depletion of the laying hen supply hasn’t yet resulted in an egg price spike at the supermarket, the Washington Post recently reported that the liquid eggs used by large food manufacturers now cost twice as much as they did in late April.

Manchester Farms, a familiar name from local restaurant menus, dates back 40 years. It annually harvests about four million Pharaoh quail, many of which end up at highly-regarded restaurants from New York City to San Francisco. The farm also sells quail eggs.

Because the current strain of avian flu is so easily spread, the USDA is advising poultry producers to shield their flocks from exposure to wild and migratory birds. “Our quail are raised in large barns to protect them from predators, disease and less than desirable weather patterns,” Miller points out.

Still, she allows that everyone in the industry is concerned.

“What started in the northwest that is now affected by the Mississippi flyover for wild birds is moving too close to home for us in South Carolina,” she says. Alluding to the flu’s inability to survive in high heat, she adds: “We all hope summer will naturally cause the end of this situation.”