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State rep apologizes for donning white coat, making light of bird flu

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In what can only be described as a head scratcher, state Rep. Ron Erhardt donned a white lab coat and a stethoscope before delivering rambling remarks about bird flu on the floor of the Minnesota House Tuesday afternoon.

Erhardt, DFL-Edina, said that he ate turkey for dinner Saturday night and promptly got the flu. And he wondered aloud whether people who eat turkey can get sick from the avian flu, which has spread to more than 80 poultry farms in Minnesota and claimed more than 5 million birds so far.

At one point Erhardt held up a jar labeled "bird flu vaccine" that appeared to contain candy, according to a reporter sitting nearby. He also had what appeared to be a can of air freshener labeled "bird flu vaccine," the Forum News Service reports.

Here's video of his remarks.

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It wasn't entirely clear whether Erhardt was joking around. But regardless, his fellow lawmakers, especially those from areas of the state that have been hit hard by the epidemic, were not amused.

Legislators from both parties chastised Erhardt for making light of the crisis, and said he was spreading false information about the safety of the food supply, according to KSTP.

"We need to be educating and reinforcing for Minnesotans that our food supply remains safe and that we should continue to support our turkey farmers, rather than making jokes and spreading false information on the floor of the Minnesota House," said Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, according to the Forum News Service.

Baker represents Kandiyohi County, which has the highest number of infected turkey farms in the state.

The Department of Health has said there is no threat to humans from eating turkey, since the virus will not get into the food supply. Even if it did, cooking turkey meat properly would kill the flu virus.

A few hours later, Erhardt issued an apology.

House Minority Leader Rep. Paul Thissen also issued a statement saying bird flu is a serious issue and no one should make light of it, although he didn't mention Erhardt by name.

Erhardt made his comments on the same day that Jennie-O Turkey announced it was laying off 233 employees as a result of the avian flu outbreak.

It also was the same day that Gov. Dayton and several lawmakers served free turkey burgers to 600 people on the Capitol lawn in a show of support for Minnesota's turkey industry.

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