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Avian flu threat leads to precautions half a world away
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Minnesota turkey farmers are always watching their flocks for signs of avian influenza. (MPR Photo/Lorna Benson)
International health experts said this week they're still worried avian influenza could spark a global flu pandemic among humans. The disease has already taken a huge toll on birds in southeast Asia. The situation is literally half a world away from Minnesota. But it hits close to home for the state's poultry industry.

Willmar, Minn. — So far, domestic chicken flocks in southeast Asia have been hit hardest by avian influenza. But the disease puts fear in any poultry producer. Dale Lauer, who directs the Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory in Willmar, the epi-center of the state's turkey industry, says turkeys are just as susceptible.

"Absolutely, it'll knock 'em dead," Lauer says.

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Image Turkey farmer

Minnesota produces more than one billion pounds of turkey each year -- more than any other state in the nation. It's Lauer's job to make sure that avian influenza doesn't get in the way of that. So his lab tests poultry samples from all over the state for signs of the virus.

"We're able to identify those flocks early, and really get them out of the system before they become a problem," says Lauer.

The Minnesota Poultry Testing lab has been doing this work for more than 30 years. In contrast, Lauer says testing hasn't happened regularly in southeast Asia, where the poultry industry is small and far less sophisticated. As a result, Lauer says avian influenza has been allowed to fester.

"They're finding out in east Asia, the longer you allow these flocks to cycle from flock to flock, they heat up," says Lauer. "In other words, they become more pathogenic or they have that potential to become more pathogenic."

The more pathogenic, the more severe the disease. Out of 70,000 tests in Minnesota last year, less than 1 percent came back positive for avian influenza. None of them were highly pathogenic like the current outbreak in southeast Asia.

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Image Thousands of birds

But the lab has found several milder strains just as capable of killing turkeys and chickens. In those cases, farmers are notified immediately so they can quarantine their flocks and sterilize their barns before the virus gets a chance to spread to neighboring farms.

A few miles outside of Willmar, Torry Norling checks in on his flock of baby turkeys, called poults.

"This is the way a flock should look," says Norling. "They're up and around, and just very energetic."

Norling doesn't know how many poults are in this barn, but he thinks it's close to 10,000. With numbers like that, it's easy to see why influenza is such a concern. An outbreak in this barn could wipe out the whole flock.

Norling says most turkey producers are more than willing to cooperate with the state surveillance program.

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Image Testing for the virus

"If there's a particular virus or bacteria that's causing a problem in a neighboring flock, it's pretty important to stay current on what's out there, so you can do the best job you can in preventing your own turkeys from getting sick," says Norling.

So how are some Minnesota turkeys getting influenza in the first place? Probably through wild birds.

Wild waterfowl and shore birds are natural carriers. But the turkey industry took steps to minimize that risk years ago, by confining their flocks in large barns where they couldn't mingle with wild birds.

Still, the wild birds can pass on the virus through their droppings. All they need is an intermediary to transfer the droppings to poultry. In most cases, the intermediary is a human.

To avoid spreading the disease, virtually all Minnesota poultry producers have strict biosecurity measures.

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Image Veterinarian Ron Lippert

Veterinarian Ron Lippert works for Willmar Poultry Co., owner of the largest combined turkey hatcheries in the world. He says there are numerous precautions.

"Our company has set up their whole farm system based largely on influenza," says Lippert. "That's the power influenza's had in the development of the industry in Minnesota."

Like many poultry companies, Lippert's employer requires staff to shower and change their clothes before entering turkey barns. But he says breaches do happen, which is why every year at least some flocks get influenza.

Turkey growers generally accept that as just part of the risk of doing business. But Lippert say the industry is less comfortable with other possible sources of influenza that they can't control, like live bird markets.

"One scenario would be, say a commercial farm employee had a hobby farm where they're trafficking their product. And someone at the live bird market had ducks that were shedding the virus. And then that person came back to work and carried the virus in on his foot or on his person," says Lippert.

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Image A live bird market

The live bird market scenario may sound unlikely. But poultry pathologist Andre Ziegler says it's happened before.

"USDA has started doing some testing, in particular the live bird market network in the northeastern part of the United States, and found that quite a few of these markets were continuously infected with avian influenza virus," says Ziegler. "Since that time these live bird markets have been implicated in outbreaks in commercial birds."

There are three known live bird markets in the Twin Cities area. Lam Duong owns one of them, which is located in an old industrial building along the Mississippi River in South St. Paul. Most of his customers are Asian residents who live nearby.

"Right here we got people will kill the chicken for customer (sic)," says Duong, "and put them hot water and chill them in picking machine right there."

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture began monitoring Duong's live bird market and two other nearby operations within the last year, as a result of the avian influenza outbreak in southeast Asia. The concern is that live bird markets generally don't follow the rigid biosecurity practices that the rest of the poultry industry does.

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Image Dead chickens

But Duong says he's improved conditions in recent months. He closes his market periodically and removes all of his birds, so viruses can't survive in his building. He also washes all of his equipment with bleach.

"Actually my own flock is safe," says Duong. "We have this biosecurity, and chickens are very healthy."

State agriculture officials will meet in March to discuss the safety of live bird markets. The regulators face a dilemma. Markets like these may need more regulation. But if the regulations are too tough, the markets will simply go underground.

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