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Experts fear another avian flu outbreak

Barb Frank, a chicken farmer from Danube, Minnesota, speaks about what she considers shoddy communication and work from crews sent by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

Barb Frank, a chicken farmer from Danube, Minnesota, speaks about what she considers shoddy communication and work from crews sent by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

Millions of Minnesota birds are gone, unceremoniously snuffed off the earth, and the tens — or hundreds — of millions of dollars associated with their transfer, processing and sale at grocery stores and restaurants are gone, too. The same cannot be said of the virus that suddenly swept through this state and others and, just as suddenly, disappeared. In fact, experts think the avian flu virus is merely dormant, and predict it could resurface next spring.

That fear was one of the animating principles behind a joint hearing of the two House agriculture committees on Tuesday. Legislators concerned with state policy and spending — emergency bird flu spending approached $10 million during the past session — took testimony from top veterinarians and fowl farmers in an attempt to gauge the state and federal reaction earlier this year, and to consider how things might have been done differently.

The first testifier was also the hearing’s most outspoken. Barb Frank, a chicken farmer from Danube, Minnesota, spoke at length about what she saw as shoddy communication and work from crews sent by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Teams were dispatched to Frank’s farm to put down more than 400,000 of her chickens, though she says they never informed her that her flock had been infected with the avian flu.

Frank’s birds were among 9 million poultry that were rapidly destroyed earlier this year in the state. The new flu strain first surfaced in Minnesota in March, and soon came to dominate talks at the Capitol, where legislators passed stopgap funding, effective immediately, in a matter of weeks, with more money set aside for response and research in the general fund budget. Minnesota typically has only 15 million live poultry on the ground; the last confirmed case of bird flu was reported in early June.

Frank also told legislators that the crews worked short shifts followed by long breaks, and claimed that birds marked for death were left unfed and starving for several consecutive days. These and other complaints were part of Frank’s argument for more private-industry control over the response to emergencies.

“We must be allowed to use industry crews,” Frank said. “They’re more experienced, and frankly they care more about the birds, the barn and the work.”

Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, chair of the House Agriculture Policy Committee, called her descriptions “alarming, to say the least,” and said Frank’s ideas would be “looked at a great deal,” particularly as state agencies and the USDA brace for another pass of the flu virus.

A reappearance of the bird flu is not only possible, but probable, according to Dr. Bill Hartmann, who led response with the state’s Board of Animal Health, who cited previous cases when flu had gone dormant in summer, fall and winter, only to come back the following spring.

“We’ve contracted with poultry veterinarians to do biosecurity reviews on farms,” Hartmann said. “We think that’s probably the most important thing we could do, at this point, is figure out ways that we can keep the virus initially from getting in farms.”

Dr. David Halvorson, a University of Minnesota veterinary scientist, said researchers are still unsure of how the virus was first transferred from wild birds to barn flocks, leaving some mystery as to how best to prevent it from returning next year.

No fewer than five state agencies were involved in the emergency response this year, and about $6 million in state money is still available for related expenses through the 2015-16 biennium. The USDA will still be expected to take the lead on the ground when and if the flu comes back, and the U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has called for a rewriting of agency policy in light of the 2015 crisis, the most extensive farm animal disaster in American history.

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, chair of the House Agriculture Finance Committee, said his chief concern is finding ways to connect aggrieved farm owners, like Frank, with federal agents handling the response effort. Numerous poultry producers have complained about failures in timely communication, Hamilton observed, and lawmakers have been similarly left in the dark.

“What I’d like is some ownership, not as far as what went wrong, but what we’re going to get right, moving forward,” Hamilton said.

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