Senator Tom Harkin: “Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for holding this hearing to look at the role of U.S. agriculture in the control and eradication of avian influenza. We’re all aware of the human aspects of this disease, but there has not been as much attention to the threat of avian flu to agriculture. If this disease comes to the United States via birds – and not by humans, as some experts fear – we will still have a problem on our hands. A widespread avian flu outbreak in poultry will not only be costly to producers, states, and the federal government in controlling and eradicating the disease, but avian flu in our poultry has the ability to instill fear in American consumers. And in agriculture, that can be more devastating to the industry than the disease itself.

“Poultry is an important part of agriculture in Chariman Chambliss’s state of Georgia and my state of Iowa. Iowa is the nation’s top producer of eggs and its 10th largest turkey producer. I would like to welcome Gretta Irwin from the Iowa Turkey Federation. She brings Iowa’s perspective on avian flu and how the industry is preparing for it. Iowa produces the most hogs of any state. Pigs are another animal that factor into a discussion of avian flu because swine can contract both the avian flu virus and the human flu virus. Many experts have said that swine is the mixing vessel that can lead to a pandemic, as both viruses can co-exist in pigs and transform into a virus that can readily infect humans. Nevertheless, I would like this panel to address issues of surveillance between species and how we are linking that up. We need to build better surveillance capacity for animal health in general, and find the best way to inform producers of various animal species what diseases are where in order to avoid cross-species virus transmission.

“Another concern I have is how we will help local and state officials in the event of a flu outbreak in poultry or any other animal disease or biosecurity crisis for that matter. State departments of agriculture play a critical role in controlling and eradicating a deadly animal disease such as avian flu. Funding is needed for surge capacity in laboratories for rapid diagnosis of large quantities of samples, to protect first responders from animal diseases that can be contracted by humans, and for interstate coordination of response plans. State and local officials also must be adequately informed about federal indemnification programs to make producers aware of resources available to them. All of these needs come at a time when the federal government does not provide enough financial resources to states.

“Today’s hearing will highlight the crucial role that agriculture plays in the management of this deadly disease. If we tackle the disease at its root, we may never have a human disease problem. However, should avian flu reach our shores via birds, we will have a serious economic problem on our hands, and somewhat greater risk to humans, although fear will be far greater than actual risk. Americans eat more chicken than any other meat. Our poultry industry is valued at over $25 billion, and our poultry exports are valued at over $1.7 billion. Other countries would quickly close their markets to our poultry and poultry products upon the discovery of this disease in the United States. But more frightening is the potential rejection of U.S. poultry by American consumers. Recently, Dr. David Swayne, a scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory, stated if the virulent H5N1 strain of avian flu was found in the United States, poultry demand would drop by as much as 50 percent. Yes, the United States has had some experience with avian influenza, but we have never had experience with an animal disease that can cause this much consumer fear. I hope that today we can cover issues that not only will help us prevent, control, and eradicate this disease, but that will also help us respond and recover from what could potentially be a tremendous blow to our economy.”