WASHINGTON, July 29, 2015 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told a group of poultry industry stakeholders on Tuesday that discussions on the next farm bill should include a disaster assistance program for chicken, turkey and egg producers.

“I hope that one of the long-term lessons from this (avian influenza outbreak) is that we can convince our friends in Congress that we need a disaster program for the poultry industry similar to what we have for livestock because ultimately it will be less expensive.”

Vilsack was the lead speaker at a conference called “Avian Influenza Outbreak… Lessons Learned.” He went on to say that since the current farm bill was signed, USDA has made over 600,000 payments to livestock producers for a variety of disasters including floods and blizzards.

“We need a similar program for the poultry industry, whether it is a risk-management insurance type program, a disaster program, or a combination, it will reinforce the biosecurity aspect, it will reinforce the need to mitigate the consequences and it will make sure everyone understands the rules in advance.”

USDA proposed a similar program to livestock for the current farm bill but it was not included due to budget restrictions. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, recently told Agri-Pulse that the insurance industry has communicated that it is not interested in an insurance program for poultry.

Vilsack also summarized what USDA has been doing regarding the avian influenza outbreak, which began in December but really took off in April.

“We have been working hard to deal with the onslaught of avian influenza. And we are taking steps to be prepared should it reoccur in the fall,” he said.

According to USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, 223 enterprises or operations have been hit by avian influenza in the current outbreak, with more than 48 million birds killed or depopulated. Vilsack said nearly 3,000 additional staff has been added through APHIS to deal with the outbreak.

Vilsack said USDA has spent or plans to more than $700 million to cover cleanup costs and disinfections, as well as the cost of indemnification payments to producers. “And if the disease reemerges in the fall that number will obviously grow,” he said. USDA investigators believe the disease was spread through multiple pathways.

“Obviously, it started with wild geese and ducks, but it was spread, we believe in part, as result of birds getting into facilities, people coming in and out of facilities that were infected, equipment utilized in these facilities moving from one operation to another,  water usage by some producers, and eventually airborne,” Vilsack explained.

He noted that of the 211 commercial facilities affected, roughly 90 have finished cleaning and disinfecting efforts, and almost 70 are restocking. He expects most enterprises will be back in business by the end of summer, assuming all goes well and the disease doesn’t remerge.

Vilsack said USDA is taking steps in case the disease reappears in the fall, including purchasing and stockpiling vaccines in case they are approved for use, improving communications with producers and others in the industry and making sure indemnity payments are handled fairly. He noted there is concern where the payments go when the birds aren’t owned by the producer.

“We assumed that growers and the industry would work out a division of the indemnity payments. In some cases that happened, in some cases it has not. That has made us rethink how the indemnification system could work in the future so that it is fair to producers as well as the industry,” he added.

About $183 million has already been paid out of an anticipated amount of $190 million. The two-day conference was open only to “qualified stakeholders” to allow for an “an open and frank discussion about the disease.” The agenda was developed in collaboration with the National Chicken Council, National Turkey Federation, United Egg Producers, USA Poultry & Egg Export Council, USDA, and U.S. Poultry & Egg Association.


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