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Bird flu likely to be around for years

The federal government has spent up to $30 million battling a new strain of flu that resulted in more than 1.6 million Minnesota turkey deaths, and experts warn that the issue could go on up to five more years.

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Turkeys in Minnesota. Forum News Service file photo.

ST. PAUL-The federal government has spent up to $30 million battling a new strain of flu that resulted in more than 1.6 million Minnesota turkey deaths, and experts warn that the issue could go on up to five more years.

"This is something we may have to live with for a number of years," Dr. John Clifford of the U.S. Department of Agriculture told a Minnesota House agriculture committee Thursday.

Most cases were reported March 5 to April 3, Dr. Carol Cardona of the University of Minnesota said, and as temperatures rise cases may slow down. However, she added, it is likely that the region will experience outbreaks each spring and fall for three to five years unless something is found to slow its spread.

Scientists say they think migrating ducks and geese bring the virus to Minnesota.

"It will reoccur, very, very likely in the fall," Clifford said, because that is when the wild birds head back south.

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Cardona showed legislators a photograph with one turkey left standing in a barn, the rest apparently dead.

"This is horrific," she said.

Clifford, the USDA chief veterinarian, said his department has about 60 staff members in Minnesota fighting avian influenza. "We will continue this effort as long as it takes."

Fifty full-time state employees are working on the issue, along with 15 temporary and 18 contract workers.

Warmer weather across Minnesota may be helping slow the outbreak.

"I am hopeful that the sunshine that we see today is leading to the end of this wave," Cardona said.

Rep. Jennifer Schultz, D-Duluth, wondered what can be done to prevent bird flu from spreading.

"We are looking at a situation that has changed overnight," Cardona said, indicating there is no firm answer. "We no longer are living in the same world as we were."

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That said, she added that procedures need to be continually improved to keep the virus out of turkey barns.

Northfield-area turkey producer John Zimmerman said that already is happening.

"Before, we would wash our boots," Zimmerman said about when workers went from barn to barn. "Now we have separate boots."

He said visitors are not allowed in barns.

Executive Director Steve Olson of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association said the procedures are working because there is no evidence virus is spreading from one barn to another or one farm to another.

The virus, probably coming from waterfowl flying through the area, can be attached to dust or other particles blowing in the wind.

While the issue is serious, Olson also tried to put it in perspective. Twenty-six of 2,500 flocks in the state have been infected. The infected flocks are in 14 counties, the state Board of Animal Health reported Thursday.

Minnesota is the country's largest turkey producer, with 46 million birds a year.

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Some countries and states have banned Minnesota turkeys although federal and state officials say there is no evidence that the bird flu has been transmitted to humans.

In a conference call with reporters, Clifford said the USDA is working with countries to try to reopen turkey sales. Mexico, China, South Korea and South Africa ban all American poultry and some other countries ban only Minnesota birds

"We are hopeful we can get things reopened in regards to Mexico," Clifford said about a major American poultry buyer.

Experts say there is nothing to fear about Minnesota turkeys.

Any bird with the virus "will never, ever enter the food chain," state Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson said.

The federal government has spent $15 million to compensate Minnesota turkey producers for birds they had to euthanize. Insurance is not available for turkey deaths.

Clifford said that up to $15 million more has been spent on other needs, and the federal government is considering whether more is needed in Minnesota.

The state House Thursday evening unanimously approved a measure to pay the Agriculture Department $514,000 and the Board of Animal Health $379,000 for state expenses.

More state money is likely to be needed and legislative leaders are considering it. A House committee already has approved a $1.2 million appropriation.

"We want to get it right," Chairman Ron Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, of the House Agriculture Finance Committee said.

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