USDA readies for threat of more avian influenza

Farm and Dairy file photo.

SALEM, Ohio — Much to the relief of poultry producers and consumers, the detections of highly pathogenic avian influenza are on the decline, according to experts who testified July 7, during a U.S. Senate Ag hearing on the topic.

The disease that has affected more than 48 million birds in the Midwest and western states has “slowed considerably” over the past few weeks, said Dr. John Clifford, deputy veterinary administrator with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

But experts like Clifford say the disease could bounce back at any moment, especially as the fall migration of birds picks up.

“The risk of the disease reemerging in the fall or the spring is significant,” Clifford said.

He called it “the largest animal health emergency in our country’s history,” and assured Senators that “this disease has the USDA’s fullest attention.”

Clifford said more than $500 million has already been committed to fight avian influenza, including more than 400 USDA staff and 200 contracted personnel. He said APHIS can and will request more resources, if it becomes necessary, but also stressed the limitations put on APHIS due to budget cuts.

U.S. Senators Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, said the current outbreak underscores the importance of a strong animal health research program and infrastructure.

Both senators commended poultry producers and state governments for doing their part to prevent further spread of the disease — which in some cases meant euthanizing remaining birds — and stepping up biosecurity.

“The rapid response demonstrated by government and industry alike is the kind of coordinated effort that will ensure the U.S. poultry sector weathers this storm,” Roberts said. “I am also pleased to share that many of the first farms hit with HPAI in the upper mid-west have begun repopulating their farms. This is a critical step because it enables these farms to begin generating income again.”

Speaking up

Farmers and poultry representatives from the state’s top egg producing states addressed the committee, including U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, whose state ranks second in egg production.

“The USDA must act swiftly to prevent the spread of avian flu in order to protect Ohio egg producers and consumers from soaring egg prices,” Brown said. “With egg and poultry farming creating more than 14,600 jobs annually in Ohio, stopping the spread of this virus is critical to protecting our economy.”

Brown said it’s important to support and fund continued research, as the nation looks to stop future animal disease outbreaks.

Safe food

Roberts and others stated several times: There is “no impact on human health and food safety.”

But they noted the importance of consumer concern, and the fact that some consumers will remain concerned, despite the tests that have been done — and the fact that sickened birds are not sent into the food chain.

Roberts asked what could be done to better position the nation for animal health diseases.

Clifford said a big part is making sure APHIS is adequately funded and staffed. He said the service lost about $430 million since the beginning of the federal government’s sequestration, along with about 800 positions.

Embrace new treatments

But he also said the world needs to embrace new tools — including vaccines — for treating livestock and poultry. While some vaccines have been shown effective with poultry, the U.S. faces trade barriers from foreign nations that are not as accepting of vaccines.

“We and the world, worldwide and internationally, have to stop eradicating diseases through the total destruction of animals, and depopulation of animals,” Clifford said. “We need to find new ways to save animals and that protein, for (people’s) families, for the owners, for the companies, for trade, for a lot of reasons.”

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Chris Kick served Farm and Dairy's readership as a reporter for nearly a decade before accepting a job at Iowa State University Extension. An American FFA Degree recipient, he holds a bachelor’s in creative writing from Ashland University.



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