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Minn. poultry industry on 'higher alert' for bird flu outbreak

Hen turkeys live their lives in a Minnesota production facility. Farmers who raise them are preparing for potential bird flu outbreaks in 2017. Minnesota Turkey Growers Association photo / Forum News Service1 / 6
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton calms a turkey as he and turkey industry leaders gather to discuss Thanksgiving in 2015. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 6
Briana Sanchez / Tribune file photo The Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory in Willmar is shown in this September file photo. 3 / 6
Briana Sanchez / Tribune file photo Dr. Dale Lauer, supervisor of the Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory and assistant director with the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, talks during the Sept. 22 grand opening of the new lab facility. As the industry monitors bird flu reports from Tennessee and Wisconsin, officials say the new lab in Willmar is key to the state's improved response to avian flu after the 2015 outbreak. 4 / 6
Briana Sanchez / Tribune file photo Shauna Voss, senior veterinarian with the state Board of Animal Health, speaks at the September grand opening of the Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory's new facility in Willmar. 5 / 6
Briana Sanchez / Tribune file photo Dawn Hennen, left, gives a tour of the sample receiving room Sept. 22 during the grand opening of the new Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory in Willmar. 6 / 6

ST. PAUL — Minnesota's poultry industry is on high alert.

This week marks the second anniversary of the beginning of a bird flu outbreak that ended with more than 9 million turkey and chicken deaths. Added to that, two American poultry operations are infected with bird flu. And to top it off, the 2017 weather is eerily similar to 2015.

"It is starting to feel like two years ago," State Veterinarian Beth Thompson said Wednesday.

It is not that Thompson or anyone else is predicting a repeat of 2015, but there is widespread agreement that the elements are in place. The biggest difference in 2017 is that those who raise and those who process poultry, as well as regulators and livestock experts, are more prepared to quickly respond if avian influenza arrives.

"Everyone is on a much higher alert," said Steve Olson, executive director of Minnesota turkey and chicken associations.

Lessons learned two years ago will help poultry farmers respond quickly if they see signs of illness in their birds, instead of waiting to see if it appears to be the flu or something else, Olson said.

Olson said that everyone he knows in the industry has upped biosecurity measures to keep the virus out.

Thompson and Olson said improvements to flu response include a new state poultry testing laboratory in Willmar, center of the Minnesota turkey industry, which produces more birds than any other state. Also, the University of Minnesota has increased its efforts.

Still, the worry level increased this week when federal agriculture officials announced highly pathogenic avian influenza in a Tennessee commercial chicken breeder flock, then said a Barron, Wis., turkey operation was hit by a weaker version of the flu.

"We are watching what happens with that virus over in Barron County, but we have done a lot of planning since 2015 and we are confident in our response," Thompson said.

Barron is less than 40 miles from Minnesota and Olson said it and Tennessee both could be visited by migrating birds coming from the same region. If they carried a virus from their winter grounds, other birds could carry it to Minnesota.

A statement from the Willmar-based Jennie-O Turkey Store emphasized that the Wisconsin outbreak in one of its turkey farms was just in a single location and involved a type of flu known to be in wild birds. Jennie-O's statement said that low pathogenic flu like in its flock is common in North America.

A Minnesota Department of Natural Resources spokesman said that the agency has found no evidence that ducks or geese have spread bird flu to poultry farms. However, federal, state and industry officials have not ruled out migrating birds as a cause.

"Wild birds carry influenza; we have always known that," Olson said. "Just because we cannot find it doesn't mean it is not there."

"It is that time of year when we are looking at water fowl continuing up to their spring summer grounds north of us," added Thompson, adding that she has not see scientific proof to show waterfowl are not responsible.

Olson said that warm Minnesota weather two years ago at this time stalled migration of some ducks and geese that stopped in Minnesota to avoid colder weather to the north. This year's weather is similar.

Influenza viruses thrive in cold, wet weather, Thompson said. That is just how it has been in much of Minnesota recently as unusually warm temperatures and rain have been common.

The heat and dry weather in summer end to stop the spread of virus, like how it is when cold weather covers the area in winter.

Bird flu outbreaks in Wisconsin and Tennessee are not surprises, Olson said, since bird health experts said in 2015 that they expected the virus to remain active for five years.

Federal officials say 73,500 birds were killed in the Tennessee outbreak to prevent the virus from spreading. The farm where they lived and about 30 other poultry farms in the area are quarantined.

Poultry and human health experts agree that chicken and turkey meat is safe to eat.

"Avian influenza is not a food safety risk," Thompson said.

Poultry cooked to 165 degrees is safe, Jennie-O says.

Serious bird influenza outbreaks have been reported in Asia and Europe.

While health officials say the type of bird flu in the United States does not affect humans, they say it could mutate and be transmitted to people.

In some regions of the world, bird flu different than found in the United States does affect people. The University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy reports that at least 476 people in China have been infected with a different type of bird flu in the latest wave of activity.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.