Chef Eric Cheung first saw the effect of avian flu on his business in 2022. Cheung is co-owner of Hing Lung Meat Company and the upcoming restaurant Go Duck Yourself, and the restaurants’ menus both focus on pork and duck, and the roast duck accounts for half of Hing Lung’s sales. But then one of the deadliest strains of avian flu hit his duck supplier, Joe Jurgielewicz & Son out of Pennsylvania, causing a sharp decline in supply. He asked around but local alternatives didn’t have the inventory he needed, so Cheung decided to close Hing Lung for five days. “It still makes me nervous with the new restaurant coming up,” Cheung says. “It could happen again. In this situation, I think I am better off than a lot of other people, but if I told you I wasn’t nervous, I’d be lying.”
The current strain of bird flu, or highly pathogenic avian flu, that’s hit California — and particularly Sonoma County — was first detected in the U.S. in February 2022, CBS News reports. The disease spreads via migratory wild birds that come in contact with domesticated birds on farms, such as chickens, turkeys, and ducks. The East Coast and the Midwest were hit first, driving up egg prices, the Mercury News reports, and much of the same is expected to happen with California farms now being heavily affected by the disease. Since October, nearly 5.5 million chickens, ducks, and turkeys have been either killed by the bird flu or euthanized to keep the disease from spreading among farms. Sonoma County was particularly hit hard, with 1.1 million birds forced into euthanization. The county declared a state of emergency on December 5, 2023.
Joe Jurgielewicz & Son is one of the largest duck producers in the U.S., but they weren’t immune to the ravages of avian flu, which hit the JJS Farm hard in 2022, Michael Jurgielewicz says. JJS’s processing plant and hatchery were affected, similar to what’s happened with the farms in Sonoma County. The biggest hit to supply was when they first discovered avian flu at its main farm, Jurgielewicz says. Although they had ducks at other farm locations, with the main processing plant down they couldn’t prep any birds for customers and operations were impacted for two months. The fresh duck supply was immediately diminished, and the company’s freezer inventory sold off and that supply was quickly depleted. A second processing plant ultimately helped the business get through the losses and back on its feet. “Obviously it’s very devastating for us, we had to take huge losses,” Jurgielewicz says. “But then [there’s] also people like Eric; because if one of their main sellers is duck and we don’t have the duck to supply to them, then it hurts their business equally.”
Duck isn’t as central to the menu at the Morris in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood, although it is considered to be the restaurant’s signature dish. Morris co-owner Paul Einbund says the team works with Liberty Ducks in Petaluma, but given that one of its farms was hit with avian flu, he knows the duck supply is about to run dry. Liberty Ducks confirmed that notion in a recent Instagram post, and will be out of production in “about a week,” the Reichardt family says, and will “likely” be out of inventory until mid-March.
Einbund says the restaurant’s preference is to use fresh ducks, but since December, Morris chef Gavin Schmidt has tested out the dish using frozen ducks from Sonoma purveyors that have tested clean for avian flu, which they’ll switch to if needed. The ducks at the Morris are dry-aged for 10 days, which will give the restaurant some lead time to switch to frozen, which have done well in the restaurant’s trials. “Our plan right now is to try and stay with Sonoma,” Einbund says, “because those farms need our help and they’re being so careful. Our goal is definitely to keep supporting the people who we know are doing it right and are watching things and are being super careful, and support local as much as we can — and then if we needed to, we would look further out.”
Both Cheung and Jurgielewicz want diners to know that eating duck at a restaurant is safe and doesn’t pose a health risk — and the Centers for Disease Control confirms. While bird flu infections in humans are possible but rare, the infection typically happens through direct contact with infected birds, contaminated surfaces, or through the virus lingering in the air through droplets or dust, according to the CDC. Still, the CDC clarifies that “no human bird flu infections have been reported from proper handling of poultry meat or from eating properly cooked poultry or poultry products.” Cheung notes that news reports of avian flu directly translate to a drop in sales, but birds that arrive at restaurants are typically safe. “We just need more people out there eating more duck,” Jurgielewicz says, “to support all the local farms in Sonoma County when they’re back up and running, and just the overall poultry industry.”
Taking duck off the menu hasn’t been a consideration yet, Einbund says, but he says they’ll do so if necessary out of caution. Einbund is confident in the duck served at restaurants, in terms of safety, and says the birds they receive are tested at least twice before arriving in the kitchen — and that was true even before the avian flu became an issue in Sonoma. When the avian flu appeared locally, Einbund says they paused sales on their annual roast-at-home ducks for the holidays, but ultimately continued with it, trusting in the farmers and wanting to keep business local. “The good news is a good restaurant can have other dishes too,” Einbund says, “so if we need to take the duck off the menu for a while, then we’ll do it — but it would be disappointing for all of us.” During the chartreuse shortage, Einbund opened up old chartreuse bottles to make the restaurant’s other signature item, the chartreuse slushy. “We didn’t tell anybody because we didn’t want the slushy to be off the menu. So we do our darnedest to keep the things that are our signatures on the menu.”