Top U.S. Department of Agriculture officials were again on Capitol Hill this week to focus on lessons learned and where to make improvements in the response to avian influenza and preparation for anticipated future outbreaks.
A House Agriculture Committee hearing again featured testimony from USDA’s deputy director of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Dr. John Clifford and Dr. David Swayne, laboratory director for the Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory at the Agricultural Research Services.
Coming off a two-day meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, with industry stakeholders and government officials, Clifford said the three basic areas for improvement remain biosecurity, depopulation and disposal.
“We all need to improve biosecurity,” Clifford said, which can be accomplished by washing equipment, limiting the number of people on farms, limiting contact with wild birds and improving outreach with producers.
Clifford said there’s also recognition of the importance of rapid depopulation. “The longer it takes to depopulate, the greater chance to overwhelm biosecurity efforts,” he said. A new emphasis has been focused on euthanizing birds within 24 hours and doing so in a way as humanely as possible without further spread of the virus.
Methods are being explored including CO2 gas or even turning up the heat on barns and shutting off the fans. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke at the meeting and said the agency is open to suggestions. “We will be working with the industry to try to figure out what is indeed the quickest, most efficient and most humane way of dealing with this, should it reemerge.”
Effective and timely disposal was another issue that has emerged as a stumbling block with this spring’s emergency response. Vilsack said at the meeting he’s tasked a team to work with state officials about where disposal sites may potential be, whether on site in the farm, in a landfill or elsewhere. In Iowa for example, issues arose from landfills’ concerns and delayed disposal efforts.
Of the 211 commercial facilities who had confirmed cases, roughly 90 of those commercial facilities have finished their cleaning and disinfection efforts. Nearly 70 are in the position of restocking, Vilsack shared. Clifford added that it has been almost two full months since the last full detection and the ongoing progress is a positive sign the nation is recovering from the latest animal health issue this country has ever experienced.
Vilsack this week also told industry stakeholders that the poultry and egg markets are a little bit of a mixed bag due to avian influenza, adding that egg prices have obviously impacted and affected. In some regions, consumers have had to pay triple the price for grocery stores eggs compared to before the avian influenza outbreak.
"People ask the question when you're dealing with roughly 10% or so of egg production, why is it that egg prices have been so volatile,” Vilsack said. “It's in part because the elasticity of the market is very tight in terms of egg use and egg production and that results in prices and availability being an issue.”
To help alleviate the issues, Vilsack said USDA has worked through APHIS with some of the U.S. international partners to make sure there is a continued supply of eggs.
“What we don't want is for food processing facilities that are reliant on eggs to begin the process of trying to figure out how to do something different, without eggs,” Vilsack explained. “We want producers to continue to have that market opportunity once we get over the hump here. So we're going to continue to work with our foreign friends to make sure that we have an adequate supply of eggs so that those price shocks aren't quite as severe as they could otherwise be.”
He said with turkeys and chickens, it depends on the dark meat, the breast and so forth, but said USDA is following markets.
“We have used, and will always continue to have the opportunity if there is a significant surplus in the market, of utilizing our section 32 purchasing power. We recently authorized a purchase of chicken parts to basically take some of the pressure off the oversupply in the U.S. because of the export impact,” he said.
Section 32 is a permanent appropriation that since 1935 has set aside the equivalent of 30% of annual customs receipts to support the farm sector through the purchase of surplus commodities and a variety of other activities. The appropriation has totaled approximately $9 billion annually in recent years, according to USDA.
Today, most of the appropriation (approximately $8 billion) is transferred to the USDA’s child nutrition account, with a separate amount (about $130 million annually) transferred to the Department of Commerce for fisheries activities. The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, acting through USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), has the broad discretion in how to spend the remaining non-transferred (unobligated and carryover) money.