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Parts of Midwest hit hard by strain of ‘bird flu’; millions of birds and dollars lost to virus

by Carolyn Orr ~ May 2015 ~ Stateline Midwest »
A highly contagious strain of “bird flu” hit the United States this year, and parts of the Midwest have been the epicenter of the outbreak. As of early May, highly pathogenic avian influenza, H5N2, had been identified in 17 states, with outbreaks at more than 60 farms in Minnesota alone and the loss of more than 28 million birds. Bird flu has also been reported on farms in Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Ontario.
The majority of farms hit by the virus have been commercial turkey operations, but several large egg-layer farms with more than 1 million birds have been impacted. And backyard flocks are not immune, with some affected farms having fewer than 40 birds.
This form of bird flu kills domesticated poultry quickly (especially turkeys) once it gets into a barn. It can spread through an infected bird’s droppings or discharges, and while there is no danger to the public or to consumers of poultry products, the recent flu strain is devastating the poultry industry.
When identified, all surviving birds are euthanized and composted on the farm at a cost of about $2 million per farm. Any farms with birds within a 6-mile radius are quarantined — with no movement in or out. As a result, this outbreak of bird flu is a financial hit not just to one facility, but to other farms within the quarantined area.
“In addition to the economic impact expected to [hurt] the $1.2 billion poultry industry in Minnesota, there are practical issues resulting from composting 50,000 or 100,000 birds on site,” says Rep. Paul Anderson, chair of the Minnesota Agriculture Policy Committee.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a compensation program for affected farmers; it pays about $25 for every bird that must be euthanized. Farmers, though, are responsible for the value of birds that die due to the disease. (The Canadian Food Inspection Agency compensates Canadian farmers for lost poultry, paying $20 for a non-breeding chicken and $70 for a turkey.)
Farmers affected by this outbreak of bird flu have no product to sell, and their barns can be out of commission for months. Other financial concerns include the cost of testing, bans on the shipment of products, and the closing of key export markets.
More than 30 countries have banned poultry imports from affected states. The USDA is predicting that this outbreak will reduce the country’s $5.7 billion poultry export market by more than 8.4 percent. In Minnesota, Jennie-O Turkey, a division of Hormel Foods, is laying off 233 employees due to reduced bird supplies.
This animal-health emergency is also costly to states. In Minnesota, Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson puts the price tag over a two-month period alone at about $900,000 — for overtime pay for veterinary technicians and for Board of Animal Health employees helping with depopulation and information sharing.
Earlier this year, the Minnesota Legislature approved legislation to cover the costs of the emergency response through this fiscal year; another $1.2 million will be allocated in the next two-year budget to combat animal or plant diseases. North Dakota legislators allocated an additional $300,000 for their Department of Agriculture. According to Iowa Sen. David Johnson, lawmakers in his state have been trying to determine whether to cap emergency appropriations for the Department of Agriculture or leave emergency funding open-ended.
The governors of Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin, meanwhile, declared states of emergency and mobilized their National Guards to help with cleanup and security.
Avian influenza viruses typically disappear due to ambient temperatures by mid-May. The concern with this outbreak, though, is that epidemiologists have not been able to figure out exactly how the birds are contracting the disease.
More than a decade ago, each state developed a response plan to focus on and coordinate surveillance for diseases that might be communicable from animals to humans. Work on those plans has helped states better prepare to handle this outbreak of bird flu. Though they work closely with the USDA, states are responsible for handling ground operations, defining quarantine zones, assisting in biosecurity protocols, and testing the animals.
State departments of natural resources, too, have ongoing wildlife programs that test thousands of wild birds each year. And state departments of health monitor and test poultry employees to ensure there is no transfer to humans. There has been no evidence that this strain can infect people.


Article written by Carolyn Orr, CSG Midwest staff liaison for the Midwestern Legislative Conference Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee.