By Lydia Wheeler – 07/07/15 04:46 PM EDT
The United States has faced the largest animal health emergency in its history, an Agriculture Department administrator said Tuesday.
Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), otherwise known as bird flu, is wreaking havoc on the U.S. poultry industry, according to John Clifford, the deputy administrator of USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
The outbreak, which started in December 2014, has affected more than 48 million birds in 15 states, with the highest toll taken on turkeys and egg-laying chickens in Minnesota and Iowa.
“All told USDA has committed over $500 million, an amount more than half of APHIS’ yearly discretionary budget, in addressing this outbreak,” Clifford said during a Senate Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry Committee hearing on Tuesday. “We can and will request additional funds should we need to.”
Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said the outbreak of bird flu poses no food safety risk, nor does it pose any health risks for the public.
“The virus itself does not cause any particular concern at this time for the Centers for Disease Control and Health and Human Services,” Clifford said. “We monitor this very closely with them.”
As a result of the HPAI outbreak, Clifford said USDA has depopulated 7.5 million turkeys and 42 million chickens and young hens, representing approximately 3 percent of the U.S. annual turkey production and approximately 10 percent of the egg-laying chicken population.
“As a sign of the difficulties producers are facing, this year is the first year in more than a decade that the United States will import eggs from European markets to help make up the shortage from the millions of birds lost to the outbreak,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said.
Clifford said the U.S. needs to find a better way to control the disease by developing new strains of vaccines.
Both Clifford and Dr. David Swayne, laboratory director of the Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory of USDA’s Agriculture Research Services, said personnel and funding cuts have impacted their ability to respond to the outbreak.
“The question is how much do you want to pay for,” Clifford said when Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) asked how much funding the department needs. “You pay for what you get.”
Clifford said his appropriated budget for veterinary services under APHIS is around $250 million for 1,800 people. The department, however, has been approved to hire 460 temporary workers, of which 300 will health technicians and veterinarians responding directly to the outbreak throughout the U.S.
Casey asked Swayne if it’s possible to eradicate the current outbreak without the use of a vaccine.
“We have not had an outbreak flock in about three weeks,” he said. “Which, at this point, suggests we are at that point of eradication of the current outbreak virus that began in December.”
But he said the next question is will the virus come back with migratory birds in the fall, which would probably start in late August in Minnesota.
“That will be the big question,” he said. “Will we be prepared for a potential onslaught of another wave of outbreaks.”