Rep. Ron Erhardt, DFL-Edina, apologized Tuesday for delivering a meandering floor speech in which he donned a lab coat and stethoscope while alleging that avian flu can be transferred to humans who eat the meat of infected birds.
Erhardt's comments, which drew immediate criticism from his House colleagues, came shortly after more than 600 turkey burgers were served on the Capitol lawn in support of the state’s turkey industry, which has been hit hard by the spread of avian flu. Jennie-O’s Turkey Store in Faribault said Tuesday that they’d be forced to cut production and temporarily lay off 233 workers. The House on Monday passed an additional $6 million to the state’s response efforts, including bolstering unemployment for affected workers.
In a statement, Erhardt said he since met with Minnesota Department of Health officials and better understands the issue.
"I am confident in their work, and assessment that consuming turkey is safe for Minnesotans," he said. "I apologize for making light of this serious issue and I support immediate passage of legislation that will adequately fund a response to the avian flu crisis."
The speech, transcribed below, can be viewed here.
"This is going to come a little late for some of you because you’ve already been to lunch, but on Saturday I had a nice turkey dinner and almost immediately after I began feeling signs of flu, and I was all flued out all day Sunday, so I got here on Monday and I heard about this giveaway, the turkey burger day, and I began to wonder…well I wonder, because I remember a couple years ago when we had some transference of avian flu to birds and people and I thought 'Well, maybe I think I should mention this, at least give you a fair warning that it’s a possibility,' but I didn’t get a chance to do that. After I found out, as a matter of fact that this (turkey burger cookout) was a bipartisan offer and not just an offer to the DFL, I felt a little better about it--the burgers I mean. Now, I put on my former doctoring hat and clothes and began to think about this, and I thought 'Well, there must be some way, even after you have ingested this possible poison, that we might help you out.' So I looked around for any type of vaccine and I couldn’t find enough needles and it was too unsanitary so I ruled out that. But then I found there’s that there’s some oral vaccines that you can take that will slow it down…"
Erhardt then held up what appeared to be a candy jar labeled “Bird Flu Vaccine” before Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, asked Speaker Pro Tem Tim O'Driscoll (R-Sartell) to cut off Erhardt’s speech.
“It appears as though this is going to be maybe a joke at some point, but the turkey farmers of our state are suffering a very serious crisis. It is something that is not a partisan issue, it is something that impacts each and every one of us,” she said. “Turkey is a safe food to eat. It is not something we need to be making light of, and I’m confused by what Rep. Erhardt is trying to do, and I just need to respond and ask for you to tell him to stop. Thank you.”
Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, who led Tuesday’s turkey grillout, echoed Poppe in the inappropriateness of Erhardt’s comments.
“I’m assuming it’s a joke; some sort of funny thing, but it’s not a laughing matter at all to the...residents of the state of Minnesota,” he said.
Erhardt claimed he was serious, and that he borrowed the lab coat from a doctor he knew that reminded him of transference of bird flu to humans some years ago.
Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, called Erhardt’s allegations “absolutely false.”
“It’s not funny at all, and like I said, we have a tremendous amount of people working on this very serious issue,” Hamilton said.
The House then adjourned over Erhardt’s protests. Almost immediately afterward, Baker issued a statement calling out Erhardt.
“I'm extremely disappointed that Representative Erhardt would make light of this crisis that's having a devastating impact on families and people's livelihoods in all corners of Minnesota,” Baker said. “We need to be educating and reinforcing for Minnesotans that our food supply remains safe and that we should continue to support our turkey farmers, rather than making jokes and spreading false information on the floor of the Minnesota House. "
Erhardt, a financial planner, has served in the House since 1990. This is his 11th term. In a statement House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, did not name Erhardt, but maintained that the Minnesota Department of Health has concluded that turkey is safe for Minnesotans to eat.
"This is a serious issue for farmers and for all Minnesotans. No one should make light of it," Thissen said, adding that the Legislature should immediately take up a bill to provide funds requested by Gov. Dayton to fully address avian flu. "It should not get tied up as a bargaining chip in end of session negotiations."