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Senate Hearing On Avian Flu

USDA/Bob Nichols
Both Iowa's Republican Senators Joni Ernst (pictured above) and Charles Grassley sit on the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee.

The U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing Tuesday on avian influenza’s impact on the U.S. poultry industry. The USDA has come under scrutiny for its handling of the outbreak. 

One topic of discussion are the indemnities provided to affected producers who must euthanize their entire flock when the virus is detected. The USDA is considering a new indemnity formula in light of criticism that the current calculation short changes producers. 

Jim Dean of Sioux Center chairs the group United Egg Producers, a trade organization that represents companies that own more than 90 percent of the nation’s egg laying hens. Dean says one of the complicating factors is that ages of hens in a laying flock are staggered so that under normal circumstances an entire flock doesn’t die at once.

"So if all of them die at the same time and have to be euthanized at once we cannot immediately repopulate our farms, but must do it in stages. During which time those barns that remain empty generate zero revenue to pay fixed costs and wages," says Dean.

To date avian flu has infected 77 poultry sites in Iowa, which has resulted in the killing of more than 31.5 million birds. Nationwide 223 operations have been infected and more than 48 million birds killed. 

Iowa turkey producer Brad Moline of Manson also testified on Tuesday. He says he's had to depopulate a total of 56,000 birds across twelve barns. 

Moline says he's currently living "the avian influenza nightmare," and criticizes the USDA for a lack of efficiency, communication and transparency.

"When we get that presumptive positive on the farm, we need to be contacted immediately by the USDA," says Moline. "On our farm we broke on a Tuesday morning. Our first contact with the USDA was Thursday. And we didn't depopulate until Saturday."

While he believes communication has gotten better, Moline also says USDA contractors were ill prepared and the amount of indemnity paperwork that was required impeded his ability to quickly compost birds and disinfect his barns. 

Dr. John Clifford of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service says this particular outbreak of avian influenza is unique as it is the first time a highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza has crossed from Asian or Europe into North America.

He says this is significant because the strain that's infected flocks across the Midwest this year, mutated from a strain that mutated from H5N1. In 1997 H5N1 killed six people in Hong Kong and infected an additional 12.

"At the time it was concerned that this would be the next human pandemic," says Clifford. "We put some money toward trying to address H5N1 in Asia, but we didn't put enough. And if the world had put more money toward that effort and addressed these diseases in the animals at the time, we wouldn't have this situation today." 

The CDC says human health concerns connected to the current avian flu outbreak is very low. It seems that only birds are impacted by the virus.

The USDA says there are no food safety concerns since any affected poultry products are barred from entering the market. Also properly cooking food kills the virus.