By Rachel E. Stassen-Berger, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton on Thursday declared a peacetime emergency to deal with the growing avian influenza attacking turkey flocks across dozens of farms.
At least 2.6 million birds have already been killed to stop the highly infectious virus from further devastating Minnesota poultry.
"Obviously, we're worried. There's no question about it," said Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson.
The magnitude of the flu outbreak has caused the unprecedented reaction of a peacetime emergency for an agricultural disease. The flu has already been found in 46 farms in 16 Minnesota counties and has attacked almost a fifth of the turkey stock now in the state since March. When a farmed bird is found to have the flu, the flock is killed as a precaution.
"It continues to grow," Dayton said as he announced the state of emergency. The flu has already hit a large chicken producer in Iowa and may have spread to commercially grown chickens in Minnesota.
Dayton and U.S. Agriculture Commissioner Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, have personally discussed the Minnesota outbreak and reactions.
The governor is also planning to visit hard-hit Willmar over the weekend to meet with turkey farmers and federal officials to discuss the issue.
The impact in Minnesota, the top turkey producing state in the nation, has already shaken farmers, devastated flocks and caused Austin-based Hormel Foods to warn that its Jennie-O Turkey Store was experiencing supply problems.
The five-day peacetime emergency allows state agencies, including the Minnesota National Guard, to work together to offer what help, technical assistance and relief they can to curtail the outbreak. The state's executive council will be asked to extend it for another month next week.
Already, more than seven dozen state staffers and 134 U.S. Department of Agriculture staffers are on the ground to assess and deal with the problem.
The scope and seriousness of the outbreak is rare. The federal agriculture department said that there have been only three similarly pathogenic flu outbreaks in commercial poultry -- in 1924, 1983 and 2004.
Recently, at least 12 states have found birds with the avian flu strain, known as H5N2, including Minnesota's neighboring states but also as far away as Oregon.
On Monday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker declared a flu-related emergency in that state, which allowed the National Guard to assist in clean up and containment.
Minnesota officials said Minnesota National Guard members will not necessarily be needed on the ground here but their expertise and equipment may be tapped to help.
Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association and Chicken and Egg Association of Minnesota, said the growers were grateful for the state's reaction.
"Together with the poultry farmers in our state, we will stop the spread of this virus and take the steps necessary to ensure the poultry industry remains vital and we provide consumers with safe, nutritious, high-quality food," said Olson.
Minnesota legislators have also worked to free up nearly $1 million to add to federal funds to react to the flu outbreak and reimburse farmers. Lawmakers have also introduced other legislation to address the issue.
"Right now everybody is pulling together, as it should be," Dayton said.
State officials said that while they have found the flu strain in a few more farms every day of late, turkey is still safe to eat and many Minnesota's Mexican and U.S. trading partners have not stopped accepting the state's meat.
"The poultry on grocery store shelves has always been safe and will continue to be safe. All commercial poultry is tested before it is processed and sent to market," Fredrickson said.
Minnesota and federal officials say that the avian flu that is fast-spreading to birds poses very low risk to most people.
"This does not represent a risk to the general public," Kristen Ehresman, Minnesota Department of Health infectious disease specialist, said. The department has monitoring people who have had direct contact with at-risk or diseased birds and the state has suggested preventive human measures to them. But no Minnesota humans have yet been found to be infected with the avian flu strain that is devastating the state's turkeys.
Bill Hartmann, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health and state veterinarian, said investigators are also working to figure out how the disease is spreading.
"We are looking into everything that's possible," Hartmann said. The virus is killed by sunlight, drying and high temperatures so the coming warm weather may help curb the spread.
Forum News Service contributed to this report.