Lawmakers examine bird flu response, plans for next outbreak

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — With the possible return of bird flu weighing on them, state and federal agriculture officials told Minnesota lawmakers Tuesday of how they hope honed response plans will limit the spread of the virus and address poultry producers' frustrations.

U.S. Department of Agriculture District Director Steve Halstead told a joint hearing of two House agriculture committees of "lessons learned" in dealing with the virus that led to the death or destruction of 48 million turkeys and chickens across the country — 9 million of those were in Minnesota. His comments followed testimony of two poultry producers, one of whom was highly critical of authorities' slow response at her chicken farm and trouble securing reimbursements for steep losses.

"We overcame an awful lot," Halstead said describing it as "the largest animal disease response" ever mounted. "There are still things we need to learn."

The federal agency will have rewritten a response plan by fall to expedite handling of suspected cases, deploy field staff more efficiently and be clearer about which entities will play what roles, Halstead said.

The Minnesota Board of Animal Health is expecting faster turnaround of suspected cases sent to veterinary diagnostic labs and has set a goal of exterminating flocks on affected farms within two days, according to executive director Dr. Bill Hartmann.

"We're prepared for seeing the disease this fall," Hartmann said.

Bird flu cases were found at 110 sites in 23 Minnesota counties, and no new cases have been detected since early June. So far, 92 sites have completed cleaning and disinfection regimens and 77 have been deemed eligible to restock.

Barb Frank, who co-owns The Pullet Connection in Danube, lost 415,000 of the young chickens raised from birth until they are ready to lay eggs. A suspected case surfaced June 1, and within days a team of contract workers for the USDA moved in to seal off the farm and kill the birds.

"That day began a nightmare that continues today," Frank said, claiming it took too long to destroy the flock and put the farm in position to clean up and restock. She and relatives fought to remove one case manager; there still isn't federal reimbursement she believes she is due for $266,000 in cleanup costs.

Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, said cases like Frank's show that "it's a coordinated effort but we need to get better."

Turkey farmer Robert Orsten, whose operation is near Willmar, praised the government response in May, when two of his five sites were hit. Since then, he has reworked production facilities to include more biosecurity features, such as enclosed breezeways and restricted access to buildings.

Orsten recounted how he and his brother, a farming partner, went months without in-person business meetings and put their Sunday family lunches on hold.

"Even though we knew everyone would shower before they came to grandma's," Orsten said, "we knew it wasn't work the risk."

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