USDA, poultry producers warn MN officials to expect bird flu resurgence

Nearly 20% of the 48 million chickens and turkeys that had to be destroyed in last winter's avian influenza outbreak came from Minnesota, and officials there are now saying the threat is far from over. On Tuesday, representatives from the USDA and the Minnesota Board of Animal Health told state lawmakers they are fine-tuning their ability to respond to the virus, fully expecting it will return.

"We're prepared for seeing the disease this fall," said Bill Hartmann, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, according to the Associated Press. The agency is working to ensure faster turnaround for diagnosing suspected cases of H5N2 avian influenza and has a goal to exterminate affected flocks within two days, he told members of the Minnesota House of Representatives.

Steve Halstead, district director of the USDA, said his agency would rewrite its response plan for handling suspected cases of the disease this fall, and that it was fine-tuning methods for deploying field staff and doling out responsibilities among different organizations, according to the AP.

Meanwhile, farmers whose operations were affected by the virus continue to overhaul their production processes. Of the 110 farms affected, 92 have undergone disinfection regimens, and 77 of those have gotten the green light to restock their bird populations, according to data collected by the AP. It's been far from easy: One farmer told the state House she had lost 415,000 young chickens and is still owed $266,000 in federal reimbursement for her cleanup expenses.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

The USDA is examining other methods for mitigating the avian influenza risk. In July, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said the agency is funding research into an H5N2 vaccine. He told the House Agriculture Committee that one vaccine has already proven 100% effective in chickens and testing is underway in turkeys. The agency hopes to quickly license a vaccine and have it stockpiled around the country.

Scientists in the U.K. are looking at the problem from a completely different angle, developing genetically modified chickens that are resistant to bird flu. Scientists at the University of Edinburgh's Roslin Institute and the University of Cambridge Department of Veterinary Medicine are working together on the project, and this week they told CBS News they have already created chickens that are unable to transmit the virus to neighboring poultry or people. They believe the development is the first step toward creating a completely avian-influenza-resistant bird.

- here's the AP story
- read more about the genetically modified chickens here