Iowa senators urge USDA to ramp up bird flu response

Iowa senators urge USDA to ramp up bird flu response

Grassley and Ernst send letter asking Vilsack to make sure USDA resources are properly deployed to fight avian flu.

Iowa chicken and turkey producers need more help from USDA to cope with the outbreak of avian influenza. They need more equipment and people as the state's poultry farms that have been hit by the highly pathogenic virus are struggling to destroy and dispose of millions of birds stricken with "bird flu."

HIT HARD: Iowa, the nation's leading egg producer, has already lost about 25 million hens to the avian flu virus, which is 41% of the state's total egg-laying hen population. Bird flu has now shown up in poultry flocks in 16 states.

Iowa's two U.S. Senators, Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, on May 12 sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack encouraging USDA to ensure that resources have been properly deployed to Iowa to fight the ongoing outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI). The Iowa Department of Agriculture reported on Tuesday the disease has been detected at 49 poultry farms across Iowa so far. 

Grassley and Ernst have heard from Iowa poultry producers concerned about a lack of direction from USDA regarding depopulation and repopulation of their flocks, as well as possible development of a vaccine to combat the deadly virus.

Five more cases of avian flu reported in the last two days
Four more cases of bird flu in Iowa were reported May 12, and one more case May 13. That brings the total number of chickens and turkeys infected in Iowa to about 26 million. The virus has infected 50 poultry facilities in 12 counties. Most of the infected flocks in Iowa are egg laying hens. Iowa, the nation's leading egg producer, has lost over 25 million egg-laying hens to the virus, 41% of the state's total egg-layer population. The number of turkeys lost is nearly 1 million.

The process of euthanizing or destroying 26 million birds is running into roadblocks, as many landfills refuse to accept the carcasses. "As this crisis continues to unfold, we urge USDA to consider ways to expedite humane depopulation processes," Grassley and Ernst wrote in their letter. They say USDA should consider using local veterinarians to oversee the depopulation of infected flocks.

Poultry producers have many questions about depopulating
"I've heard from producers that the current pace at which depopulation is occurring may not be fast enough. There are additional questions about how long producers will need to leave their barns empty once the depopulation process is complete and sites are deemed free of this disease by testing. USDA could help calm a lot of nerves if they provided answers to a few of these questions. The sooner that clarity can be given on timelines for repopulating poultry buildings, the better prepared everyone will be to make decisions about this crisis," Grassley said.


USDA has been a key partner, helping Iowa address the outbreak
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad declared a state of emergency earlier this month to help strengthen the state's response to help cope with the bird flu virus. Dustin Vande Hoef, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Agriculture, says USDA has been a key partner in helping manage the outbreak. "We certainly understand the concerns of the poultry producers. The situation has escalated quickly and everyone is trying to scale up the response," says Vande Hoef.

Gretta Irwin, executive director of the Iowa Turkey Federation, says producers are struggling to get foaming equipment needed to humanely kill the birds. Facilities now have to wait for days, while the deadly disease moves through their flocks. Birds can be euthanized by using carbon dioxide or applying foam, similar to what is used to suppress a fire. Both processes work to quickly suffocate the birds. "I believe we have three machines in Iowa, but they typically can only do one farm a day," says Irwin. "With more farms becoming infected, we need to figure out a way to expedite this."

Scientists baffled by how bird flu is spreading, despite security efforts
Randy Olson, executive director of the Iowa Poultry Association, has been told Minnesota has twice as many USDA people helping battle the bird flu outbreak in that state, while Minnesota has one-tenth of the bird loss Iowa is experiencing. The top priority, says Olson, is to determine how bird flu is being transmitted despite heightened biosecurity; a mystery USDA scientists also are trying to unravel.

The virus is believed to be spread by migratory birds such as ducks and geese that leave droppings on farms. Some officials speculate farmworkers are unknowingly transporting bird flu, or it is spreading on dust or bird feathers blown by wind. Scientists also question whether rodents or small birds have tracked the virus into poultry barns.

Outbreak has already devastated Iowa's turkey and egg industry
Irwin says an infected turkey operation could lose two-thirds of its annual income, despite a federal indemnity program that will cover the cost of lost birds and the cleanup costs. "This outbreak has already devastated Iowa's turkey and egg industry, and will have a trickle-down effect on the rural communities and our country's ag economy," Grassley and Ernst wrote. "Farmers are eager to return to business as usual and minimize disruption to their business."


The two senators are urging USDA to push development of a vaccine to stop the virus. Officials expect that dry, warm weather will help slow the disease. But days of cold temperatures and rain have done little to lessen its spread. Iowa and federal health officials emphasize that they consider the risk to people from the virus to be low. No human infections with the virus have been found and there is no food safety risk for consumers.

The size of the outbreak is overwhelming. "We've never seen anything like this in terms of the massive numbers of birds and the number of farms involved," says Irwin. "This has been taxing on federal and state authorities and agencies involved. It's a lot to consider and do. But our industry and farmers feel we need to move faster."

Infected poultry farms have to cope with so many dead birds
If a poultry facility tests positive for bird flu, it is quarantined, chickens or turkeys are destroyed and disposed of, and the facility is cleaned and disinfected. For 6 miles around the facility, the area is quarantined as well and commercial and backyard flocks are tested for the disease. Many of the poultry farms are composting infected birds, but facilities also could landfill, incinerate or send birds to a rendering plant.

Three incinerators have been approved to use in northwest Iowa, where infected facilities have tested positive for the virus. State leaders are also working with certain landfills to get them to accept dead birds. As the Iowa Department of Agriculture receives final confirmations of the disease at various locations, updated information is posted to the agency's website at
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