Toll of bird flu continues to climb

ST. PAUL — The cost of fighting bird flu continues to climb in the state as more and more turkey farms are hit by the deadly virus.

ST. PAUL — The cost of fighting bird flu continues to climb in the state as more and more turkey farms are hit by the deadly virus.

More than 3 million birds in 18 counties have been affected by the highly pathogenic strain of bird flu. While the virus has yet to surface in southeast Minnesota, Austin DFL Rep. Jeanne Poppe said turkey farmers are on edge because they know it could be headed their way.

"You just don't know. Farmers are on 24-hour alert, waiting to see if they are going to be one of the impacted farmers. I just think emotionally the toll is extremely stressful," Poppe said.

The outbreak is also a blow to turkey processors, including Hormel Foods' Jennie-O.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and his cabinet members on Monday approved extending a peacetime state of emergency for 30 days due to the bird flu. It's the first time in recent memory the state has declared this type of order for an agriculture-related emergency.


"It's a very grim situation," Dayton said.

There are 55 confirmed bird flu sites in Minnesota and a total of 66 suspected sites, according to State Veterinarian Dr. Bill Hartmann. So far, 49 flocks have been slaughtered, and another 16 flocks are on a waiting list to be destroyed. To help with decontamination efforts, 41 Minnesota National Guard soldiers have been mobilized to deliver water in the Willmar area. The state also is monitoring 93 poultry workers who might have been exposed to the virus.

Rising cost

Minnesota Department of Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans said the state will need to spend more than $7 million during the next two-year budget to fight bird flu, according to a preliminary estimate. That's far more than the $900,000 set aside in bills that have passed the House and Senate. Dayton said he plans to ask lawmakers to approve the money without tying it to unrelated legislation.

In addition, Dayton said he plans to ask lawmakers to approve additional aid for farmers hurt by the bird flu outbreak. He declined to provide a specific dollar amount, saying he first wanted to talk with lawmakers about the issue. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses farmers for birds that have to be euthanized due to the bird flu, but it does not cover the cost of birds that die naturally from the virus.

Meanwhile, epidemiologists are trying to determine the cause of the outbreak. Hartmann said experts believe wild waterfowl are to blame, but recent tests for the virus have come up empty. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has collected more than 2,300 feces samples from wild waterfowl from across the state. Of the nearly 1,000 test results received so far, none have tested positive for the avian flu H5N2.

Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said the communities he represents are deeply concerned about job losses related to the bird flu. He urged lawmakers to consider options for trying to speed up the state's response.

"Time is what we're fighting," Baker said.


He asked whether it would be possible to deploy the Minnesota National Guard's mobile testing lab to help get bird flu test results back more quickly. He also suggest spraying water around clean turkey barns to help prevent possibly contaminated dust from flying around in windy conditions. State officials said they would examine both of those options.

Poppe said she wants to see the Legislature act quickly to pass emergency funding to battle the flu.

"Let's get that done so we've got that covered at least," Poppe said.

She added it's also worth examining whether any state disaster dollars could be tapped to deal with the situation. She also would like to see money for mental health counseling to help farmers struggling with the loss of their flocks.

Experts estimate the state will be grappling with bird flu over the next three to five years. If the heavy losses to Minnesota's turkey farms continue, it could threaten the state's ranking as the top turkey producer in the nation. Even so, Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson said the bird flu outbreak is under control.

"I still maintain we are in control of this," Frederickson said. "We are responding as we should be. Obviously, it continues to grow, and that's a frustration."

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