(Editor's note, 5:27pm) Cathy Cochran, USDA spokeswoman, clarified that Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack misspoke when he used the term "outbreak". In fact, Cochran said, the agency was preparing for 500 "detections" of bird flu in the fall. That means the USDA is preparing for an outbreak that is essentially double in size of the one experienced by Midwestern states this spring. The headline and lead of this story have been changed to reflect this.)
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday that the federal government is preparing for a bird flu outbreak this fall that would be two times as bad as the one experienced by Midwestern states this spring.
During testimony before a House Agriculture Committee oversight hearing, Vilsack said 3,200 employees have been added to the 8,000 who already work for Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a sub-agency under the USDA. A command structure will be put in place along with incident teams, he said.
“We are planning for a circumstance where we are simultaneously having to deal with 500 outbreaks,” Vilsack said. “We think that’s sort of a worst-case scenario situation, so were planning for that.”
Vilsack came under fire for the USDA’s response this spring, when the worst outbreak of highly pathogenic avian flu hit Midwestern states, mostly turkeys in Minnesota and laying hens in Iowa. The USDA has promised Congress to better the situation, Reuters reported.
Iowa Republican U.S. Senator Joni Ernst said farmers complained that the process of gaining USDA approval to cull birds at infected farms, receive government compensation for the losses and restock barns with new birds "has really been very complicated."
"It's been so frustrating" for farmers, she said. "It's been very slow."
In Iowa, there was "mass confusion" about the government response, said Brad Moline, an Iowa turkey farmer and representative of the National Turkey Federation. The USDA and state governments should have developed a better game plan, he said at the hearing.
One of the biggest problems was disposal of the nearly 50 million turkeys and chickens that had to be killed because of the virus. As piles of birds lay rotting, Iowa producers turned to landfills, mobile incinerators and composting.
Vilsack told the committee that USDA is trying to identify places the avian flu may strike this fall, including places where it hasn’t landed in the past, and avoid the delays of this spring.
The USDA is “trying to figure out if there are ways in which we can identify landfills, work already with local and state officials to get them prepared for this, if it occurs, so that we streamline the process and don’t have quite the delay that we’ve experienced in some other states,” Vilsack said.
Losses blamed on bird flu were estimated at $3.3 billion, including nearly $700 million in costs incurred by the USDA.