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Pennsylvania 'on high alert' for bird flu as egg prices drop

Avian flu cases emerging even earlier than last year
Avian flu cases emerging even earlier than last year 02:01

HARRISBURG, Pa. (CBS) -- This case is in a different commonwealth: Virginia, not Pennsylvania. But Pennsylvania's Department of Agriculture is "on high alert" for highly-pathogenic avian influenza, Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding told CBS News Friday, partly because of last week's confirmed case in Virginia. The reason? 

"They are in the same flyway – the Atlantic flyway – as Pennsylvania," Redding said.

In other words, in the path of migrating birds, who can spread the disease, which has caused the deaths of nearly 60 million birds – and contributed to high prices for everything from Thanksgiving turkeys last November to eggs today. 

But it's January. Why worry so early about birds flying north for the summer? 

"You think about a warm January," Redding explained. "These birds are confused. They're on the move." 

And migration season or not, humans are always on the move too. Redding's simplest and most important advice to anyone who's near birds? 

"Sometimes the simple things: Watch where you step," he said. "Cover your shoes. It's biosecurity – very simple…. Just good common sense to say, 'Where was I? Was I close to poultry?' If you were, don't go to your neighbor, or don't carry it back home with you." 

The department's new warning this week to farmers – commercial and backyard alike – comes as egg prices recede from record highs. How high were they and are they? 

John Mallios, owner of Harrisburg's Keystone Restaurant – a diner in business since the 1950s – said he typically paid between $1.00 and $1.50 for a dozen extra-large eggs in recent years. Earlier this month, that surged as high as $5.20. Now he's paying $3.25, about halfway between the old normal and the peak. 

Mallios hasn't passed along the egg price increases to customers: Counting all the other costs of running a restaurant, simple math confirms the basic $1.75 egg sandwich on his menu can't possibly be profitable. 

"I've actually had customers approach me to ask, why don't I raise my prices?" Mallios said. "I said, 'Well, I like your thinking, but I just keep it this way.'" 

The reason? 

"I'm thinking long term and thinking stability with the regulars" who come in as often as five or six times a week, Mallios said. 

The year-long avian flu outbreak has surprised many experts in its duration and intensity. Last year, Pennsylvania leaders established a $25 million fund to supplement federal USDA help for farmers and others impacted by the outbreak. 

"The legislature and [then-Gov. Tom Wolf] said, 'Let's try to put together a recovery fund,'" Redding said. "That's what we have today – the only one in the nation." 

As for newly-inaugurated Gov. Josh Shapiro? 

"One of the first conversations I had with the governor is about high-path avian influenza, to make sure we're all prepared," Redding said. 

The last confirmed case in Pennsylvania was on Nov. 17, according to department statistics. 

And as for high egg prices?

Mallios tries to find the humor in the situation. 

"There's a standing joke that if somebody came in and they were short of money, I would say, 'Give 'em an egg sandwich," Mallios said. "Now I say, 'Give 'em a cheeseburger." 

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