Senate Ag leaders ask USDA for bird flu readiness details

By Daniel Enoch

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WASHINGTON, Sept. 18 - Senate Agriculture Committee leaders are asking USDA for more information regarding the department's efforts to prepare for a possible return this fall of the bird flu outbreak that decimated Midwest chicken and turkey farms earlier this year.

“Turkey and egg producers across the Midwest continue to struggle with highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), which has been labeled the worst avian health crisis in American history,” the panel's chairman, Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and its ranking member, Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

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The lawmakers pointed out that the committee held a hearing in July on the impact of the outbreak, which resulted in the deaths of nearly 50 million birds, “significant U.S. taxpayer expense for indemnity and cleanup procedures” and “economic devastation on farms and in rural communities in more than a dozen states.” But they said questions remain regarding the potential threat of a recurrence of HPAI this fall and preparedness efforts under way, at both the state and federal level and on farms.

The questions involved four main areas: disposal of dead birds, biosecurity efforts, indemnities and vaccinations.

Here are the questions posed by Roberts and Stabenow:

1. Depopulation, Disposal, Cleaning and Disinfection:  “Recognizing some of the logistical challenges that USDA and the poultry industry faced in the recent outbreak, how does USDA plan to improve these processes in preparing for future outbreaks? How is USDA working with state and industry partners, including how best to address carcass disposal?”

2. Biosecurity: “Looking back at the outbreak, preventing exposure to HPAI through enhanced biosecurity measures will be critical to the vitality of U.S. poultry producers. What near-term biosecurity improvements can be made on and around farms to safeguard poultry flocks from future exposure to HPAI during fall migration? Further, has USDA identified long-term biosecurity improvements and investments?”

3. Indemnities:  “We have heard concerns that the indemnity calculation should be revised to more accurately reflect lost value over the two year reproductive life of most egg laying hens and that the high degree of deductions from the indemnity payment should be reconsidered. Does USDA believe that the indemnity funding formula adequately reflects the unique needs of the various industry segments, specifically the egg sector? We have also heard comments from producers who experienced difficulties qualifying for indemnification from USDA while simultaneously depopulating their flocks, finding alternative employment options for their employees, and navigating other challenges due to the HPAI outbreak. Has USDA identified ways to streamline the indemnification process?”

4. Vaccination:  “USDA recently announced a Request for Proposal to stockpile HPAI vaccine doses in preparation for recurrence of HPAI infections this fall. Does USDA have an estimate for the costs associated with building an adequate HPAI vaccine stockpile? What is the estimated time-frame for building the vaccine stockpile?  What criteria will be used to decide whether to permit or require vaccination in response to an HPAI outbreak? Finally, how does USDA plan to weigh vaccine efficacy, apprehensions raised from trading partners, and other concerns in determining whether to adopt a widespread vaccination plan?”

The lawmakers concluded by pledging to work with USDA to address future outbreaks of the disease.

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