Minnesota preparing for return of avian flu

Minnesota’s state veterinarian told lawmakers Tuesday that preparations are in place for an expected return of avian influenza this fall, when bird migrations begin and temperatures cool.

Dr. Bill Hartmann of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health testified during an informational hearing that two House committees held to update those preparations.

Minnesota poultry farmers lost 9 million birds during the outbreak that began March. The last report of a new case was June 5.

Hartmann said equipment and staff are ready to respond when the disease returns. He said state officials are also conducting bio-security reviews of turkey and chicken farms.

“We think that’s probably the most important thing that we can do at this point is figure out ways that we can keep the virus initially from getting into a poultry farm,” he said. “If we can do that, I think we’ll have a lot less problems with the disease.”

In later testimony, a University of Minnesota researcher cautioned that biosecurity measures for avian flu might be inadequate if the virus is too widespread.

The Legislature allocated $7.4 million last session to help state agencies combat avian flu through June 2017.

Members of the House Agriculture Finance and Agriculture Policy committees also heard poultry producers who lost their flocks last spring. One still has bad feelings about the government response.

Barb Frank of Danube, Minn.,  said a U.S. Department of Agriculture crew destroyed 415,000 chickens on her farm without ever notifying her formally of the infection. Frank said the crew also handled the destruction poorly.

“It took four days to kill the first barn, the first 135,000,” Frank said. “The case manager didn’t want feed brought in to save the government money, so the birds starved for those four days. When we talked to the USDA foreman about it, we were told ‘it doesn’t really matter, they’re going to die anyway.’”

Frank, who offered lawmakers a long list of recommendations, said the situation improved after the federal case manager was replaced by a state case manager.

USDA District Director Steve Halstead told committee members that many lessons were learned during the avian flu response. He said the department is now rewriting much of its response plan for the fall.