DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) —A bird flu that resulted in the deaths of 48 million chickens and turkeys has finally waned, but industry officials and government researchers will gather this week in Des Moines to discuss next steps if the virus returns this fall or next spring.
The Georgia-based U.S. Poultry & Egg Association has organized meetings Tuesday and Wednesday in Des Moines, where industry officials and government researchers will discuss what caused the outbreak and how to respond more effectively to future problems.
The organization, which represents egg and meat chicken companies as well as businesses handling turkeys, ducks and breeding stock, opted to largely close the meetings, saying they wanted participants to feel comfortable talking freely. Only speeches by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds are open to reporters, though the public won’t be allowed in even to those events.
Association president John Starkey said in a statement the goal of the gathering was to “assist the poultry industry and its stakeholders in preparing for potential, future exposure to high pathogenic avian influenza.”
The last reported case was in Iowa just over a month ago, an indication that the H5N2 virus is no longer active. Since March, the virus has hit operations in 15 states with Iowa and Minnesota suffering the worst losses. In Iowa, 32 million birds died, mostly chickens, and in Minnesota, nearly 9 million turkeys have died.
Restocking of farms is expected to begin later this week in Iowa, and Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, said 39 farms in Minnesota will soon be eligible to bring in new birds.
Vilsack told The Associated Press he’ll discuss lessons learned from the outbreak and touch on the need to improve biosecurity and efforts to develop a vaccine.
He told members of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee last week that a vaccine strain has been developed that halts the virus in chickens and tests are underway to determine effectiveness in turkeys. If it works, licensing agreements will be signed with manufacturers and federal funding sought for stockpiling supplies of the vaccine targeted at the H5N2 version of bird flu that struck in the United States this spring.
Using a vaccine, however, is controversial, with turkey producers generally more supportive than those who raise chickens. That’s largely because chicken producers export products valued at $5 billion a year to some countries that threaten to shut off purchases if vaccine is used. Vilsack said discussions are being held with trade partners to minimize impact if a vaccine is needed to control another outbreak.
The USDA is hiring 400 temporary workers to be deployable quickly and respond wherever the virus may surface, said Dr. Jack Shere, a veterinary services administrator with the USDA, in a conference call update on the outbreak last week.
Shere said the Des Moines meeting is part of a continuing effort to work with the poultry industry to improve response.
“Part of what’s going to happen at that meeting is they’re going to talk about options, tools, and biosecurity things needed to bring to bear to deal with this virus,” he said.
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