Web Video: Worst U.S. bird flu outbreak threatens Midwest poultry industry

May. 06, 2015 AT 11:28 a.m. EDT

The growing outbreak of bird flu is now the largest ever seen in the U.S. Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin have declared states of emergency and another 11 states have found cases of the virus. The federal government has added another $330 million to the $84 million in emergency funds already pledged to help cover claims by farmers. Gwen Ifill learns more from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

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GWEN IFILL: The growing outbreak of bird flu is now the largest ever seen in this country. More than 21 million birds, including three million Turkeys in Minnesota, have been killed or are set to be euthanized. A state of emergency has been declared in three states, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

But the virus has also surfaced in 11 other states, and farmers are increasingly worried. The federal government today agreed to add another $330 million to the $84 million in emergency funds it has already set aside to help cover farmer claims.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack joins us now.

Secretary Vilsack, you’re a proud son of Iowa. How would you total up the economic impact so far?

TOM VILSACK, Secretary of Agriculture : Well, Gwen, I think you need to put this in the proper perspective.

It’s certainly devastating to every individual farmer who is experiencing this, but this represents about one-third of 1 percent of all the chickens and turkeys in the country today. So it’s devastating for the individual farmer. And we’re there to help and work with that farmer to get through a very tough time.

The impact on chicken and turkey prices is at this point unknown. It potentially could not have any impact at all, given the small number that we’re dealing with relative to the overall number of chickens and turkeys in the country. It may have an impact on eggs. We will just have to see.

GWEN IFILL: The federal government is devoting just north of $400 million to alleviate this. What kind of dent can that make?

TOM VILSACK: Well, we’re not sure that all $400 million will necessary will be used. It’s — at this point in time sort of the outward bound number that we’re working on.

As of today, we’re looking at approximately $84 million of indemnification costs. This includes paying farmers for the fair market value of the chickens and turkeys that have to be depopulated, as well as the cleanup costs, which can sometimes be quite extensive, in order to ensure that facilities are properly sanitized.

GWEN IFILL: Where did this come from?

TOM VILSACK: Most likely from Asia, from wild ducks and geese that develop A.I. and resistance to it, which ultimately, in commercial-sized operations, and even in free-range chickens that are commercial, they don’t have that resistance.

And so it’s fatal for them, but not fatal for the wild birds that are spreading it throughout the U.S.

GWEN IFILL: The last time we talked about bird flu, it was an Asian bird flu, and there were humans involved, humans who died. Has there been any concern or any investigation into whether this can make a leap here from species to species?

TOM VILSACK: There is no indication of that. There’s no indication of any human situation or human illness link at this point.

This is at this point in time, unfortunately, focused on those individual farmers who are suffering through a tough time, and we’re encouraging the farmers who have not yet been hit by this to take appropriate biosecurity approaches and controls in their operation to try to mitigate and potentially avoid this happening on their farms.

GWEN IFILL: Well, what are you telling them to do? What actually could stop this from spreading?

TOM VILSACK: Well, there are a couple of things, potentially. Time is probably the key at this point. As the weather gets a bit warmer, the virus will potentially be killed by it.

Birds ultimately over time will develop a resistance, and the USDA at our poultry lab in Georgia is currently working on a vaccine. And I know that there are some private enterprise, private sector labs that are also working on a vaccine.

GWEN IFILL: Now, in Minnesota especially, the chickens who have been involved have been, as I understand it, of the egg-laying population. Does that — is there any reason that humans who are consuming eggs should be at all concerned about that?

TOM VILSACK: No, it’s just not — that’s not the issue here. The issue is unfortunately primarily agriculture. It’s not human health at this point in time.

And that’s why we have been focusing at USDA on making sure that producers do what they can to protect their interests and to make sure that we’re there to help them if in fact this unfortunate situation occurs on their farm.

GWEN IFILL: And one final question about the turkeys which are involved. Is this something that’s going to affect turkey suppliers, turkey consumers come turkey-eating time this fall?

TOM VILSACK: You know, Gwen, it’s unlikely, and for this reason.

Unfortunately, a number of countries have decided to ban all poultry and turkey sales to their country, exports from the U.S., which is unfortunate. We think a more appropriate way is to regionalize those bans, which means our export numbers are going to be down, which means that domestic supply actually could be up. So consumers might actually see more supply, not less supply, of turkey and chicken.

We’re still uncertain in terms of the impact on eggs. We — about 100 billion eggs a year are produced. Iowa obviously, being the number-one egg producer, represents roughly 9 percent of overall egg production. So, we’re still looking at relatively small percentages of the overall food supply.

GWEN IFILL: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, thanks so much.



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