WASHINGTON, April 29, 2015 – As the number of avian influenza (AI) cases continues to grow, the people on the front line of testing for the diseases are worried about keeping up.

During the first three weeks of April, the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic lab received over 3,500 test requests. While several tests turned up positive for AI, Stephanie Rossow, an associate clinical professor with the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (UMVDL), said the majority of the tests are pre-movement – turkey and chicken producers need to have two negative tests within 18 hours before they can move their flocks to market.

“We have 11 technicians testing for the flu and even with that number running in two shifts, seven days a week - it’s becoming a huge strain,” Rossow said. “Because at the same time, we can’t stop testing for other diseases like Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PEDv).

Rossow and others would like to see more funding for the National Animal Health Laboratory Network (NAHLN) to help share the workload while still providing the timeliness and service that agricultural producers expect.

The NAHLN – a nationwide network of federal, university and state laboratories with trained professionals able to conduct surveillance, testing, data analysis and validation of new tests for food, veterinary, plant health and water quality concerns – was originally developed in response to the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 and a Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD-9) in 2004.

In the 2014 farm bill, the NAHLN was authorized for an additional $15 million to increase the capacity to respond to avian influenza, PEDv and other diseases.

On Tuesday, a group of organizations representing producers of turkeys, chickens, eggs and pork, as well as the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) and others sent a letter to Congress and the Obama administration - asking for full funding in the 2016 appropriations process. Their letter notes that since April 20 there were more than 13,800 tests performed by 13 NAHLN laboratories.

“Many diagnostic laboratories have reached capacity and need additional resources now. Millions of turkeys and chickens have been afflicted and producers’ livelihoods are at stake. This disease has immediate ramifications for the poultry industry and may dramatically impact the availability of poultry products in the United States for the foreseeable future if Congress does not act now,” the organizations noted.

Rodger Main, associate professor and director of VDL (Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory) Operations at Iowa State’s College of Veterinary Medicine, says the NAHLN concept is “tremendous” because it leverages federal funding, expertise and equipment by perhaps 100 to one” and in smaller labs, the ratio is perhaps 10 to one.

A survey of 34 NAHLN laboratories conducted by the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians revealed direct state appropriations of $100 million toward total laboratory operation expenses of $186 million.

However, efforts to boost federal funding for the NAHLN from the current level of about $10 million to the authorized level of an additional $15 million has been unsuccessful – at least to date. USDA currently provides about $3 million from the National Institute for Food and Agriculture and another $6.9 million from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). USDA did not request additional funds in its 2016 budget proposal.

“The federal government has not kept pace with its obligation to this federal-state partnership,” says Gina Luke, assistant director of government relations for AVMA.

Yet, some appropriators say there is no opposition to increasing funds for the NAHLN network – the challenge is related to how the funds are administered. 

“The elephant in the room is who controls the additional funding,” says a source who was willing to speak on background only. “The NAHLN supporters don’t want APHIS and NIFA telling them how to spend the money.”

Last year, Senate appropriators gave NAHLN their own line item for spending about $10 million by taking the same amount away from appropriations for APHIS and NIFA, but that change was later dropped due to opposition from some House members.

Other sources reported that – in light of even more AI outbreaks spreading across the West and Midwest - USDA has now requested an emergency transfer of Commodity Credit Corporation funds to deal with AI. But USDA did not respond to our request to confirm that the agency is seeking additional funds to deal with the AI crisis.

On Tuesday, South Dakota Sens. Mike Rounds and John Thune sent a letter to USDA, strongly urging the department to “allocate all available personnel and resources to contain this deadly virus” and to assist impacted states. According to APHIS, there have been more than 11 million findings of avian influenza confirmed in almost 90 outbreaks since December – and the disease has now been discovered in Kentucky. The list on the APHIS website does not appear to include several findings in recent days in Iowa that would add about 4 million birds.


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