USDA unveils plan to battle avian flu if it re-emerges this fall

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released its plan to combat the deadly avian influenza as temperatures begin to drop and the possibility of the disease's return rises. Avian influenza resulted in the deaths of almost 50 million birds earlier this year.

The agency has described the virus as the worst in U.S. history and the biggest "animal health event" it has ever had to deal with that so far has cost taxpayers $950 million. The avian influenza was found in wild flocks and poultry production facilities in 21 states. The last confirmed case was reported in June.

As part of the USDA's plan, the agency is calling for stronger biosecurity practices, faster detection and depopulation of infected flocks, increased resources in the event of an outbreak and the development of vaccines. The agency recently gave Iowa-based HarrisVaccines the first conditional license for its avian influenza vaccine, RNA.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

"We're obviously hoping for the best, but during the last several months, we have been focusing on planning for the worst," Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told AgriTalk radio.

Although the agency remains unsure how the virus spread, it is urging poultry producers to review and strengthen their biosecurity practices.

"While standard biosecurity efforts practiced by the poultry industry may have been sufficient in the past, evidence of farm-to-farm spread of the (avian influenza) virus strain circulating in the Midwest shows that stricter biosecurity is needed," the agency said in its report.

Producers, it said, should look at risk factors for spreading the disease, citing examples of equipment being shared between farms, allowing wild birds into barns, whether affected farms are nearby, and not rendering dead birds.

The agency has also said it is considering a controversial method of culling flocks if the virus is found, and that's for the farmer to turn up the heat and shut off the ventilation systems in their barns within 24 hours of the flu being detected. The method, which the agency has said would be done on a case-by-case basis, has been condemned by animal rights activists.

- see the USDA plan (PDF)
- check out the HarrisVaccines release