Congressional ag leaders urge release of funds to fight avian flu

By Daniel Enoch

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WASHINGTON, April 29, 2015 - The leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are urging the White House to give Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack the go-ahead to release emergency funds to help poultry and egg producers whose flocks are being decimated by a deadly strain of bird flu.

“We write to express our extreme concern regarding Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) H5N2 infections that continue to impact our nation's poultry and egg laying flocks,” the lawmakers said in a letter to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The letter was signed by Agriculture Committee chairmen Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, and ranking members Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.

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In their letter, the lawmakers said the virus has affected nearly 100 farms in over a dozen states, requiring the depopulation of approximately 8 million chickens and turkeys. In addition, they said that despite extreme precautions, the virus continues to spread and requires significant resources to curtail its effects.

“It is with this background that we emphasize the urgency in which the Secretary of Agriculture be approved to utilize his emergency Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) transfer authority to help mitigate the spread of HPAI and limit the economic damages it causes to poultry farmers whose flocks become infected with the disease,” they wrote.

The lawmakers noted that Congress specifically intended CCC funds be used emergency situations such as the bird flu outbreak. Such funds were recently released by USDA for indemnity payments to farmers with infected flocks, for management of depopulated flocks and for necessary sanitation efforts at infected farms.

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Dr. John Clifford, USDA's chief veterinarian, told members of National Association of Farm Broadcasting earlier this week that the department has spent about $99 million on the disease, including $84 million allocated by OMB, and an additional $15 million the agency had on hand.

In their letter, the lawmaker said those funds “will be critical in curtailing the effects of HPAI.” They continued: “However, USDA is expected to request additional CCC funds be issued in the coming weeks to combat the virus as it continues to spread. We recognize that taxpayer dollars must be spent wisely and that CCC funds must be available for other potential emergencies, but in this situation early response to HPAI is critical in ensuring resources are preserved.”

The leaders of the farm committees said the battle against the disease won't be over soon The current outbreak is being spread by migratory birds flying north and feeding at bodies of water in close proximity to commercial poultry farms.

“While warmer temperatures help suppress the virulence of the virus, the consistently hot temperatures necessary to suppress the virus are not expected in the northern Midwest until later in the summer,” they write. “Further, there is currently no available vaccine for this strain of HPAI.

USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) puts the number of chickens and turkeys affected in confirmed outbreaks of the H5N2 virus at around 11 million. Recent probable cases, mostly in Iowa, would add about 4 million birds to that figure. USDA says birds in affected flocks are euthanized to slow the spread of the virus.

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