The unprecedented 2015 bird flu epidemic in Minnesota that claimed 5 million turkeys and 4 million egg-laying chickens was a wake-up call to improve biosecurity measures and to upgrade the state's capacity to respond to large-scale poultry disease.

On Thursday, state officials opened an expanded $8.5 million poultry testing laboratory in Willmar that will provide state-of-the art labs and equipment to test for bird flu and increase testing capacity for other poultry diseases such as salmonella and mycoplasma.

The funding came from the Legislature in 2015 and more than triples the size of the existing lab.

"Poultry production in Minnesota has become more dynamic and the health control programs require more sophisticated diagnostic services," said Jerry Torrison, director of the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine.

The U and the Minnesota Board of Animal Health are collaborators in the expanded Willmar lab. Its location in Kandiyohi County is the heart of Minnesota's poultry industry, which includes about 3,750 poultry producers that generate $1.2 billion annually, according to state estimates.

The new addition includes larger laboratories, enhanced equipment, conference rooms and break-room space. The different labs handle necropsy, media prep, and bacteriology and serology, among other specialties.

Beth Thompson, the state veterinarian and Minnesota Board of Animal Health executive director, said the existing lab already runs about 300,000 samples per year in routine testing.

"The one thing that we were unable to do at the poultry lab last year is something called PCR testing for avian influenza," she said. "We were driving samples into the Twin Cities to the diagnostic lab at the [University of Minnesota] St. Paul campus."

Having the new testing capability and three additional technicians at the Willmar lab will offer greater capacity for the state to respond more quickly to emergencies with time-sensitive testing and diagnosis, she said.

Timing is critical during a bird flu outbreak because an entire flock needs to be killed immediately if the virus is confirmed.

Thompson said that what began as a tragedy for the poultry industry in 2015 has had a beneficial outcome in terms of the expanded lab. "We don't want highly pathogenic avian influenza or any other illness to impact our birds," she said.

The board is responsible for safeguarding the health of domestic animals in the state, including poultry.

The 2015 epidemic occurred in Minnesota between March 4 and June 5, and the H5N2 virus was confirmed at 105 turkey farms, four egg-producing chicken farms and one backyard flock.

It also affected poultry operations in 20 other states, but Minnesota and Iowa were the hardest hit.

Scientists still don't know how the bird flu reached Minnesota and how it spread so quickly, but the virus likely was carried into the state through wild waterfowl. Poultry producers have since spent millions of dollars ratcheting up their biosecurity so that if the disease returns, it may not spread as widely. State and federal agencies have also purchased equipment and updated emergency notification procedures and response duties to react more speedily if future poultry disease outbreaks occur.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388