NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee State Fair kicked off Thursday in Wilson County, and on Friday feathered fowl will compete to see who will be named Tennessee's top birds.
The only thing their owners want them to take home is the blue ribbon, but there's a chance the birds could take home something else this year: highly pathogenic avian flu.
For that reason, the State Veterinarian was on site this week with the USDA and Tennessee Department of Agriculture technicians to provide a few checkups. Veterinarians tested competing birds for avian flu and pullorum disease before letting them compete this year.
Poultry birds have been plagued with a highly contagious avian flu outbreak in the U.S this year. The USDA said the spread has been waning since May, but the threat of the virus continues to linger.
The outbreak has affected both commercial and backyard flocks, killing nearly 40 million birds. Tennessee is one of the few states that has avoided seeing a major outbreak this year, and state leaders want to keep it that way.
"We want to encourage poultry ownership, and like any type of livestock husbandry we want people to be informed about what biosecurity measures they can take to keep themselves and their birds healthy," State Veterinarian Dr. Samantha Beaty said.
Tennessee is one of the largest producers of broiler chickens in the U.S., so a large bird flu outbreak in the state has the potential to seriously impact the industry.
Some fairs have had to cancel their poultry exhibits out of caution because of bird flu concerns, including the Alaska State Fair in early August.
Health leaders said the risk of humans catching this bird flu is low, but it's highly contagious among domestic poultry.
On top of bird flu, Tennessee and other states continue to deal with an ongoing salmonella outbreak that's been traced to backyard poultry. Many of the chickens infected are not showing symptoms, but people can become severely ill if they come in contact with the bacteria.
"Be sure not to kiss, hold, or snuggle with your birds because you can easily transmit the disease that way," Beaty said. "And people who are immunocompromised or young are certainly at risk for very severe illness, and nationally we’ve had a couple of deaths this year so it’s important that poultry aficionado and poultry lovers knows best how to protect themselves while they are working with their feathered friends."