Source: USA Today

By Christopher Doering

WASHINGTON — Egg and poultry groups Tuesday criticized the Agriculture Department's handling of the worst avian flu outbreak in U.S. history, with one Iowa turkey producer charging the response allowed the deadly virus to spread.

At a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing about the bird flu outbreak that has devastated producers in Iowa and 14 other states, Brad Moline, a third-generation turkey farmer from Manson, Iowa, told lawmakers that state and federal officials were slow to sit down with poultry groups to outline how they planned to combat the disease and what would be required of the industry.

Moline, testifying on behalf of the National Turkey Federation, said when the fast-moving virus was spreading in Minnesota, state and federal officials failed to move quickly enough in Iowa. Instead, they sent mixed messages that left producers uncertain of what to do. He said the USDA should have put more department officials and better-trained contractors in the field to meet with producers to cut down on communication errors.

"We firmly believe unclear communication contributed to the spread of this disease," said Moline, whose own operation has depopulated 56,000 turkeys and expects two-thirds of its annual income to be wiped out by the virus. "Initially, federal and state governments missed a critical opportunity to sit down with the industry to develop a defined game plan. This would have avoided the mass confusion that we experienced in Iowa.”

Jim Dean, chairman of the United Egg Producers and an egg farmer from Sioux Center, Iowa, said the industry was largely supportive of USDA's response to the outbreak even if was not always in agreement. "In a situation like this, no response is ever perfect," Dean said. "Sometimes we have had disagreements with (USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) or frustrations with various aspects of their operations."

The bird flu epidemic has highlighted a number of shortcomings including the time it takes for researchers to create a vaccine to adequately protect uninfected birds from attracting the virus and backlogs in depopulating and disposing of birds — a problem that was especially prevalent in Iowa. Some local producers reported having thousands of dead chickens sitting on their farm for weeks, attracting flies and smelling worse each day.

Warmer weather and longer days have slowed the spread of the virus, but not before it forced the destruction of more than 48 million chickens, turkeys and ducks, cost the industry billions of dollars and drove up the price of eggs and egg products.

The outbreak has been especially damaging in Iowa, the nation's largest egg-producing state, with 40% of its egg-laying hens lost to the disease. The state has reported 75 cases of the virus — the most recent on June 17 — resulting in the death of 32 million birds.

John Clifford, USDA's chief veterinary officer, told the Senate committee that "despite the difficulties," the department's previous experiences with animal disease outbreaks — especially poultry — enabled it to respond "quickly and decisively."

He defended the USDA's response, noting its efforts to help affected producers restart their operations, work on developing a vaccine and maintaining or reopening trade markets. So far, the USDA has committed $500 million to address the outbreak, and has had about 3,400 USDA staff and contractors working around the clock in states hit by the disease, Clifford said.

"This disease has the USDA's fullest attention," he said. "I really want our producers to understand that they have USDA's support. … The lessons we've learned from the spring on this outbreak will inform our response and allow us to minimize the effects of this disease going forward."

There are concerns the virus could return this fall when migrating birds, the likely source of the virus, fly south for the winter. If it does reappear in Iowa, the most likely time would be in September, USDA said.

Clifford said the USDA is conducting workshops with state and industry officials outlining how they would be expected to respond and identifying ways to more quickly euthanize, remove and dispose of dead birds. The department also plans to hire 450 temporary employees for the fall, and increase surveillance of wild birds to spot the virus.

"USDA is treating the potential of more infections in the fall with the utmost seriousness," Clifford promised. "Although we hope that we will not have additional or more widespread outbreaks, it's very likely that wild birds will carry the virus with them when they begin migrating south this fall."

Poultry groups and some lawmakers, including Iowa Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, have said the federal government needed to respond more quickly and offer more resources to combat the disease.

Grassley said he heard from farmers during the crisis that they were getting conflicting information from contractors and USDA officials. Ernst told USDA she received several calls from affected farmers concerned the process wasn't moving fast enough. She noted one producer who had to wait nine days for USDA to respond after the individual called the department. During that time, 90% of her flock was lost.

"The process … has really been very complicated. It's been so frustrating for them, very slow," Ernst said. 

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