USDA bracing for bigger bird flu outbreak

By Philip Brasher

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WASHINGTON, July 22, 2015 - The government is gearing up to deal with as many as 500 incidents of avian flu this fall, far more than the number that devastated Midwest producers this spring, says Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

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Vilsack told the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday that his department is working to increase the number of incident response teams to deal more quickly with outbreaks on farms.

“What we have learned is that we do need a command and communications structure that is organized and in place as quickly as possible,” Vilsack said. “We're looking at ways in which we can identify assets and increase the number of incident command teams as soon as this thing hits.”

USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has reported 223 detections of avian flu since Dec. 19, including 105 in Minnesota and 75 in Iowa. There have been no new detections reported since June 17, but the outbreak devastated turkey and egg production in the two states, and there are fears it could reach broiler operations in the South.

Vilsack, who will speak at an industry-wide meeting on avian flu next week in Des Moines, Iowa, expressed optimism that a vaccine would soon be available to protect farms. The vaccine has proven 100 percent effective in chickens and is now being tested in turkeys, he said. The department plans to stockpile supplies of the vaccine once it becomes available.

Disposing of poultry carcasses following depopulations proved to be a challenge for farms, so the department is contacting landfills in areas that could be hit by the virus next to secure needed cooperation ahead of time, Vilsack said.

The department is also trying to head off trade disruptions by persuading countries that buy American poultry products not to impose blanket embargoes on U.S. imports, but to target only products from the affected regions.

So far the department has promised more than $500 million in indemnity payments to producers and is working with the industry to improve biosecurity on farms. The department also is studying how to address complaints about disparities in the payments, and Vilsack told the lawmakers they should consider creating an insurance program for poultry producers in the next farm bill.

The committee's ranking Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, told Vilsack that USDA's handling of the outbreak this spring “has helped restore confidence” within the industry. 

On other issues:

-Vilsack said the Farm Service Agency has made strides in improving its information technology despite missteps with the MIDAS (Modernize and Innovate the Delivery of Agricultural Systems) project. He blamed the failure on inadequate preparation as well as differences between USDA offices in Kansas City and Washington.

He said the system now allows farmers to see records from multiple counties in a single county FSA office. The next step is to allow farmers to use the system online so they don't have to go to an FSA office, he said. To that end, FSA is consulting with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which already has an online system.

-The administration's new rule re-defining what wetlands are regulated as “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) under the Clean Water Act would likely result in “a lot of litigation and concern,” Vilsack said.

He said it wasn't clear what would happen when there are differences between the NRCS and the Army Corps of Engineers on identification of wetlands. 

-Vilsack told the committee's chairman, Mike Conaway, R-Texas, that the department couldn't stop a former official, Pearlie Reed, from being hired under contract or some other capacity since the Justice Department declined to prosecute him.

Reed, who oversaw USDA's Office of Advocacy and Outreach, resigned in 2012 after USDA's inspector general reported that the office awarded a number of grants improperly.

The Justice Department's decision not to prosecute “makes it difficult if not impossible to take any further action against Mr. Reed,” Vilsack told Conaway.

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