Viewpoint: Don't lose focus of avian flu threat
Earlier this month, when we heard the news that a highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza had been detected in chickens in Tennessee and then last week that a less pathogenic strain had been detected in Wisconsin, my mind immediately turned to the devastation Minnesota's turkey producers saw in 2015.
These news reports bring anxiety to poultry farmers and legislators as we remember the 2015 outbreak here in Minnesota that cost more than $650 million, 100 farms their livelihood, and the forced destruction of millions of birds.
The outbreaks in Tennessee and Wisconsin show that bird flu is still active and still a potential threat. In 2015 I authored legislation to provide an immediate response to the avian influenza outbreak. We're still prepared to meet the threat of an outbreak, but there have been troubling attempts to take funds from preparedness efforts and use them for other purposes, such as tax cuts. We cannot allow that to happen when an outbreak could happen at any time.
Carol Cardona, University of Minnesota avian influenza expert, reports that, "We've seen evidence, in a bird in Alaska and one in Montana, that the 2015 virus is still out there. So I know our poultry producers are on extreme alert right now."
The outbreak in Tennessee was the most dangerous category of bird flu. It is reported that it most likely started as a low pathogenic virus and evolved into the deadly, highly pathogenic form. Viruses are known to change quickly in environments like feedlots. In this case, more than 70,000 chickens were destroyed to limit the risk of spreading the disease.
Although the 2015 virus hasn't shown up in a poultry flock recently, tests in the last six months did find the bug in wild ducks in the U.S. This has been a year of elevated bird flu activity around the globe. Europe and Asia have been hard hit, with more than a hundred people in China dying from avian flu infections.
In terms of an economic contribution to the state of Minnesota, agriculture pumps $95 billion dollars annually into Minnesota's economy. The 2015 outbreak was the largest animal disease outbreak ever in the U.S. It's important to note that Minnesota first responded to this crisis with a trained incident management team from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA). When the outbreak worsened, USDA's Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and a number of other state and federal agencies stepped up to help eradicate this highly contagious disease. Throughout the five month response, the MDA employees alone contributed 18,000 hours to the effort.
Protecting our state's agriculture sector from devastating threats and working to quickly minimize them when they do strike should be top of mind for all of us in St. Paul. Incident responders need to be ready to move at a moment's notice, and having resources available before emergencies occur is a better guarantee that our response will be quick and effective.
Following the 2015 outbreak, the legislature established the Agricultural Emergency Account to address this need and create a fund for future outbreaks. There's concern that as some legislators look to fund tax cuts they will look for places to find funds and may do away with the account and use the funds for other purposes. We know the economic toll avian influenza had on our state in 2015. And that's just one disease that struck the poultry industry.
There are numerous animal diseases and other threats that could strike any part of our agriculture industry at any time without warning. Instead of worrying if we'll have the resources to immediately address a new emergency, let's stay prepared. Agriculture touches every Minnesotan every day. We need to remember our top place in the breadbasket and do what we can to ensure the success of agriculture in Minnesota.
Rep. David Bly, DFL-Northfield, is the DFL-Lead on the Agriculture Policy Committee.