“Foreboding.” That’s the grim word that Steve Olson, the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association’s executive director, uses to describe the outlook among the dwindling number of state poultry producers whose operations have so far escaped a regional outbreak of the highly pathogenic H5 avian influenza.
With flocks at some farms wiped out as the lethal virus hopscotches around the region, producers who remain unaffected fear it’s only a matter of time before this rapidly spreading bird virus is in their barns. “Everybody’s waiting for the other shoe to drop,’’ said Olson. Those who have been in the industry for decades say the level of bird deaths and financial losses is “unprecedented,’’ he added.
The outbreak is ongoing, with answers slow to come about how the virus is spreading from its “reservoir” in wild birds to commercial flocks. But it’s clear that this is a potential agricultural disaster — one with serious economic implications for the regional economy and, particularly, Minnesota. The state is the nation’s leading turkey producer and home to large food processors. Seventy-two poultry farms in 19 Minnesota counties had been swept up in the outbreak at the end of last week. More than 3.5 million turkeys have died or been euthanized so far. That’s about 8 percent of the state’s yearly production, according to a Star Tribune story.
Avian flu has hit commercial poultry operations in all states sharing a border with Minnesota, with producers in eight other states also grappling with the disease. Late last week, health officials announced that the virus appeared to have spread to five Iowa egg operations. Rembrandt Enterprises, which has more than 5 million birds, was the most recent producer to have had a positive initial test in Iowa. Rembrandt is owned by Glen Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune.
The scale of the problem warrants short- and long-term responses to rein in the outbreak, stem the economic losses and, most important, to prevent this avian flu strain from becoming a human health risk. This strain has not sickened humans. Poultry remains safe to eat, with testing programs in place to keep infected birds out of the food supply.
It’s critical that additional resources are made available for outbreak-control staff and other crucial but unexpected expenses. Minnesota lawmakers must also put resources in place to prevent future outbreaks. That includes ensuring that the state’s flagship University of Minnesota has robust, long-term funding to recruit and keep top-notch agricultural health researchers. Cutting the U’s budget, which has been proposed at the Legislature, would be reckless at this time.
Consideration at the state and federal levels should also be given to producers’ plight. Insurance currently is not available for losses sustained in an outbreak like this. Nor does federal compensation for euthanized healthy birds — necessary to check the flu’s spread — go far enough. Disaster aid for producers who lack the resources needed to rebuild may be warranted. Making some type of affordable insurance program available in the future also merits serious discussion.
The lethality and spread of the flu strain is a sobering reminder that the influenza virus is also a leading human health threat. The current human vaccine provides some protection, but a more effective shot is long overdue. Accelerating that vaccine’s development is a logical, long-term response to this unfolding agricultural disaster.