By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
OMAHA (DTN) -- Members of Congress from both parties are asking the Obama administration to continue spending money fighting avian influenza.
Lawmakers are worried because USDA has already received $60 million in claims to pay poultry growers for their losses out of a fund set aside of $84 million. Lawmakers want USDA to be prepared to take whatever other steps are necessary to curb the spread of the H5N2 highly pathogenic avian influenza.
H5N2 cases began hitting commercial turkey farms in March and now have hit 14 states and led to roughly 20 million turkeys and chickens being killed by the virus or killed to prevent its spread. Cases recently have concentrated on turkey farms and egg-laying operations in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin, but wild birds have now been detected with the virus in Kentucky.
State and federal officials in recent weeks have cited high costs and time destroying and composting poultry at increasingly larger farm operations. Some of the turkey operations have involved hundreds of thousands of birds on a single farm while egg-laying operations in Iowa have led to euthanizing millions of chickens at a single location.
The chairman and ranking members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees wrote a letter Wednesday to the White House Office of Management and Budget. The lawmakers pointed out the role migratory birds have played in spreading H5N2. "In Minnesota, which has been hit the hardest by (highly pathogenic avian influenza) infections, nearly all of the 52 impacted farms have been located within a few hundred years of a lake," the congressional ag leaders stated.
The committee principals on the letter were Sens. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, and Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, the chair and ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee; as well as Reps. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, and Collin Peterson, D-Minnesota, the chair and ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee.
The lawmakers cited the fear that even though the virus might be suppressed because of warmer temperatures, it's possible the virus will continue to spread north into the Upper Midwest later this spring. USDA officials also are concerned the virus could spread to the eastern flyways.
Thus, lawmakers want the Obama administration to allow Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to use his "emergency Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) transfer authority to help mitigate the spread" of the virus "and limit the economic damages it causes to poultry farmers whose flocks become infected with the disease."
The CCC operates as an emergency fund and allows USDA to help stabilize and protect farm income and prices, according to its charter. The agriculture secretary chairs the CCC board, which gives the department authority to borrow money from the U.S. Treasury to pay for its spending.
The chairs and ranking members of the Agriculture Committees reminded the White House Office of Management and Budget that the Animal Health Protection Act states the agriculture secretary makes the final call on the steps and funding needed to stamp out an animal disease, not OMB. The lawmakers told OMB to "not impede" USDA in dealing with avian influenza.
"Farmers are already facing severe economic hardship due to bird mortality, disruption in their production cycles, and loss of export markets for unscientific reasons. We need to ensure the indemnification process and cleanup of infected farms occurs immediately to avoid additional disruption in rural America," the congressional ag leaders wrote.
Peterson's district in western Minnesota has effectively been ground zero for infected commercial turkey flocks. At least 12 counties in his district have had at least one farm hit by avian influenza. Peterson told reporters on Tuesday that he had met with USDA's chief veterinarian on Monday. Peterson worried that it can take a couple of months of disinfection downtime before a producer might be able to repopulate a barn.
"For some of these folks, it's going to be a big hit because they are going to be out of business for two or three months," Peterson said.
Peterson noted that turkey processors now are being affected by supply-chain issues as well.
Conaway expressed some concern to reporters on Monday that OMB might prevent Vilsack from using his current authority to do whatever is necessary to combat the virus and indemnify growers.
OMB is statutorily required to manage federal spending. That requires the agency to review all funding requests, such as releasing Commodity Credit Corp funds to USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services. OMB has approved three apportionments with a total of $84 million for APHIS activities associated with the avian flu outbreak; all have been approved in four days or less of being received from USDA. There are no pending apportionment requests for highly pathogenic avian influenza awaiting approval, according to the office.
Minnesota's senators have written similar letters to USDA effectively calling on Vilsack to ensure the funding and resources are available to curb H5N2 and support producers. Sen. Al Franken wrote a letter in mid-April. Fellow Democrat Amy Klobuchar issued a statement earlier this week saying she had spoken to Vilsack "to ensure that needed resources continue to be made available to support affected turkey growers."
On Monday, Vilsack told reporters that the immediate goal in battling H5N2 was to slow the spread of the disease. He encouraged producers to quickly detect and report cases because indemnity for flocks that have to be destroyed is based on the fair-market value of the birds on the date of the incident.
For the latest update on H5N2 findings, go to USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website: http://dld.bz/…
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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