Jeanne Poppe: State's turkey industry needs a quick response to avian flu
Minnesota is proud of being the No. 1 turkey producer in the United States. Due to the strong numbers of birds produced here, we also are susceptible to avian flu strains that impact bird health. The most recent highly pathogenic H5N2 virus has — as of Friday — affected 26 farms in 14 counties, destroying 1.6 million turkeys.
In a hearing last week of the House Ag Policy and Ag Finance committees, Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers likened this experience to another timely occurrence — tornado season. He said much like when the conditions are ripe for tornado activity, no one can predict if you will be hit by a tornado.
Turkey producers are watching their flocks, being even more vigilant on biosecurity precautions, and hoping whatever carries the influenza is not going to strike their farms.
Olson's analogy hits home for me as someone who grew up on a turkey farm that actually was hit by a tornado 50 years ago on May 5, 1965. On that evening our world was turned upside down; we lost a barn and pole sheds, equipment and the garage attached to our house. Turkeys were killed and many were injured by being thrown around the radius of our farm. Although I was a young child, I recall the experience of walking outside in the dark after the tornado hit and the stillness in the air.
As scary as it was to experience the tornado, I am sure the experience was magnified for my parents, who had to deal with the aftermath. Anxiety, stress and uncertainty are all natural emotions to come from such an experience.
Right now I can only imagine the stress and tension turkey farmers are going through. While Minnesota's farmers are proud that we are the top turkey producers in the United States, the success of our turkey growers has made Minnesota ground zero for the avian flu outbreak. The avian flu somehow was carried to Minnesota, likely from wild waterfowl, but researchers still are trying to determine how it gets transferred to the turkey flocks.
When avian flu is confirmed by the Board of Animal Health, the flock is quarantined and any living birds are euthanized to prevent the virus from spreading. Farmers can be reimbursed for the loss of birds which are euthanized to prevent the spread, but there is no reimbursement program for any birds which die from avian flu. When a farmer does experience an outbreak, it can mean the loss of tens of thousands of birds and thousands of dollars in a matter of days.
Fortunately, this is not a public health or food safety risk. No humans have been infected with the strain of the virus that is devastating farms across Minnesota. In response to the seriousness of this outbreak, there has been a quick and diligent response by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the Board of Animal Health, the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Experts from around the United States have been on the ground working to combat and control the outbreak.
Minnesota has one of the top agriculture departments in the country, which has been critical in the quick response to and coordination around the avian flu outbreak. It is, unfortunately, times like this that show how important it is to have a strong regulatory system in place. Bill Hartmann, the state veterinarian from the Board of Animal Health, has been working with producers and businesses for years preparing for incidences such as these. That preparation is allowing commerce to continue and for action to be swift and targeted.
After the informational hearing on the avian flu outbreak, Rep. David Bly, DFL-Northfield, introduced House File 2225 as Ag Policy chairman. I am second author of the bill that was introduced April 16 to fund emergency response actions by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the Board of Animal Health during the outbreak.
Before we adjourned that day, Bly asked the House to suspend the rules to bring up his bill for immediate consideration. This was met with bipartisan support and action. The bill passed off of the House floor with unanimous support and was sent to the Senate.
While we don't know exactly how the virus is spreading, state and federal agencies are doing everything they can. Several hotlines were set up for those who have questions:
• Farmers or anyone with general questions about avian flu and biosecurity can call 888-702-993.
• To report sick or dead poultry, call 320-214-6700, ext. 3804 (MN) or 866-536-7593 (USDA).
• Hunters, hikers or anyone outdoors who sees sick or dead wild birds can contact the DNR toll-free at 888-646-6367 so the DNR can investigate the bird deaths quickly.