The state is in better position to contain avian influenza than it was a handful of months ago, even as we hold our breath heading into the fall.
I attended an information meeting Tuesday at the Capitol to receive an update regarding avian influenza after the virus recently devastated our state's turkey flock. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture reports the virus infected nine million birds on more than 100 farms across the state from March to June.
Significant efforts have taken place since the outbreak, first to assist in recovery and then to implement strategies for the future. State and federal officials, along with poultry producers, joined members of both House agriculture committees – policy and finance – at Tuesday's meeting to provide an update.
By all accounts, the state agencies performed very well under tough circumstances during the outbreak. Still, there were alarming concerns raised regarding the initial response, particularly over procedures used by the federal government. Maybe you can chalk part of that up to the fact they were blindsided by how quickly and on how large a scale avian influenza struck our state.
Part of the plan going forward is to have case workers from the Minnesota Board of Animal Health serve as case workers from the time a flock is infected until the case is closed. This should improve response time, eliminate some layers of bureaucracy and put decisions in the hands of officials closer to the situation. The goal is to depopulate infected flocks within a day or two instead of the longer delays farms experienced during the recent outbreak.
Let's hope other changes make a difference in improving our ability to respond. In addition to the $8.5 million the Legislature provided to assist in recovery efforts last spring, other investments have been made with the long term in mind. This year's bonding bill included $18 million for a veterinary isolation lab in St. Paul and $8.5 million for a poultry-testing lab in Willmar.
The state's poultry industry is recovering, with at least half of the farms that were wiped out having restocked their barns. Producers such as Jennie-O in Faribault are rehiring workers after avian influenza forced them to make cutbacks.
But, as I alluded to the start of this letter, this optimism comes with caution. First of all, we are entering the time of year when the migration of wild birds could spur the spread of avian influenza. Also, this virus does not hold up to extended stretches of warm summer weather. As the temperatures drop, its ability to contaminate flocks rises.
In any case, the increased attention avian influenza has received and the steps we have taken to contain the disease should leave us less susceptible to widespread damage. Stay tuned for more news as it develops.