Senators seek USDA action on avian flu threat

Ten southern senators changes needed on indemnity payments and expanded financial flexibility in devastating cases.

Plans to address the threat of a renewed avian flu outbreak should be tailored to ensure the continued viability of the U.S. poultry industry and particularly made comments on indemnity payments and expanded financial flexibility in devastating cases, according to 10 senators who penned a letter of concern to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Led by U.S. Senator Thad Cochran (R., Miss.), the senators requested action on three issues as the U.S. Department of Agriculture determines how best to implement its Fall 2015 Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) Preparedness and Response Plan. In addition to Cochran, the letter was signed by Senators John Boozman (R., Ark.), Bill Cassidy (R., La.), Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.), David Perdue (R., Ga.), Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), Richard Shelby (R., Ala.), David Vitter (R., La.), and Roger Wicker (R., Miss.).

The senators seek to ensure that the HPAI regulations will allow for equitable distribution of indemnity support between owners and growers engaged in contract poultry productions, without which the growers could be left vulnerable given the high cost of production.

“It is our understanding that the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is drafting an interim rule to allow the use of split owner/grower indemnity distribution for HPAI. This would align with current regulations for other types of avian influenza. We are encouraged by the actions APHIS is taking, and we request that you allocate any future indemnities equitably so that producers can maintain access to financing in the short-term and the future,” the letter to Vilsack said.

In the event of an outbreak, the senators also request policies that address indemnity protection against losses associated with HPAI-caused supply chain disruptions. The current assistance program would only cover birds that must be destroyed.

“Even if the birds in a particular producer’s facility do not contract HPAI, that producer could be affected by a hatchery outbreak. As the Department continues to improve HPAI response capabilities, we encourage you to consider providing downtime compensation and to report to us on the feasibility and costs that would be required by doing so,” the senators wrote.

The lawmakers asked that the Farm Service Agency begin to develop guidelines to allow the restructuring of direct and guaranteed loans held by borrowers severely affected by HPAI.

“Finally, we believe it is important for growers to have expanded financial flexibility in particularly devastating cases. In a worse-case scenario, special remedies may be required to prevent foreclosures and keep the industry strong,” they wrote.

The USDA is preparing for renewed occurrences of HPAI in the United States, following an outbreak between December 2014 and June 2015 that infected more than 48 million birds in 15 states.

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