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New poultry testing lab in Willmar prepares industry for next avian influenza event

WILLMAR--The despair that was felt in the Minnesota poultry industry this time last year--after nine million turkeys and chickens were wiped out in an unprecedented outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza--was replaced with a sense of deter...

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The Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory in Willmar opened for tours to the public Thursday. Briana Sanchez / Tribune

WILLMAR-The despair that was felt in the Minnesota poultry industry this time last year-after nine million turkeys and chickens were wiped out in an unprecedented outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza-was replaced with a sense of determined readiness during a celebration Thursday christening the new Minnesota Poultry Testing Lab in Willmar.

"This project was born in a crisis," said Dr. Trevor Ames, Dean of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota.

A collaboration between the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, the $8.5 million project included construction of a 11,900 facility that replaced a small, out-dated facility, and the purchase of new equipment that will allow the lab to do additional testing.

Four additional staff are being hired, which will bring the total to 20 employees.

Besides routine tests to determine the health of poultry flocks, for the first time the facility will be equipped to diagnose the highly pathogenic bird flu that hit the area last year.

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In 2015 those samples had to be transported to St. Paul, which extended the time it took to get samples tested, results returned and depopulation actions taken.

The new lab will also, for the first time, be able to do autopsies on poultry.

"Today we are better prepared," said Dr. Dale Lauer, supervisor of the lab and assistant director with the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, adding that he hopes the state "never has to repeat" the avian flu outbreak of last year.

"We're not only focusing on the past, but where we're going," said Dr. Beth Thompson, state veterinarian and executive director of the BAH, during the public grand-opening ceremony.

On Monday the lab will officially be part of the National Animal Health Laboratory Network, which is a nationally coordinated network and partnership of federal, state and university animal health laboratories.

It will be the second such facility in Minnesota.

Tours of the fresh, new facility featured a receiving area where samples are passed through a secure vestibule window and bar coded with flock and premise information. That data wasn't part of the routine last year, Lauer said.

Dead poultry that's double-bagged are brought in a separate entrance to the necropsy lab that has is set up for autopsies. Appointments are requested before carcases are brought in, Lauer said.

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There are spacious bacteriology, serology and molecular diagnostics labs that have new testing equipment.

In the past the lab had done about 300,000 avian testing procedures every year. That number is expected to increase, Lauer said.

The lab also includes a room equipped with cameras and microphones that will allow vets in Willmar to have conferences with pathologists in St. Paul or other facilities.

That room could serve as a command center if another outbreak happens.

"We are well-staged to handle another event," Lauer said.

The flow of traffic and samples is choreographed to reduce spread of disease. After Thursday's open house public tours will be very rare.

Besides the collaboration between the University and the BAH, the Legislature was praised for bi-partisan efforts to approve funding for the laboratory.

Rep. Dave Baker, a Republican from Willmar, said Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, deserves credit for the project along with the legislative committees. "The head coach got us together," Baker said.

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"I wish I could say the state worked that well all the time," said Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City.

Groundbreaking for the project was held in December. The project was completed on budget and "record time," said Ames.

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at clange@wctrib.com or 320-894-9750
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