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If bird flu comes back, Minnesota won't be blindsided this time

Poultry experts in Minnesota say the state's better prepared for avian influenza than it was a couple years ago.

Bird flu outbreaks reported in the past week at a chicken farm in Tennessee and in a turkey flock in western Wisconsin have Minnesota's big-bucks poultry industry on the lookout for the virus.

But two years after avian influenza put a big dent in the industry, Minnesota says it's better prepared to handle an outbreak if one arrives.

State Veterinarian Beth Thompson tells Forum News Service: "We are watching what happens with that virus over in Barron County (Wisconsin), but we have done a lot of planning since 2015 and we are confident in our response."

2015 was a costly year

There are a lot of things about bird flu that poultry experts don't know for sure. Where it comes from is a biggie.

But one thing they agree on is there's no real threat to human health from it. Instead, the fears about bird flu are financial ones.

Minnesota, which is the country's top turkey-producing state, lost nearly $650 million to the 2015 outbreak, the U of M calculated. Millions of birds either died of the virus or were killed to try to keep it from spreading.

Besides all the farmers who lost their flocks, the cost of the outbreak spread to those who work at processing plants or the truck drivers who normally haul those birds to market. Consumers felt the pinch, too, when the smaller number of birds drove up prices for turkey and eggs.

What's different now?

For one thing, poultry farmers know what to look for and are ready to respond as soon as they see any signs of the illness in their birds.

Also, the state has done more research and now has a special poultry-testing lab set up in Willmar.

Jennie O credits "experienced flock management personnel" with identifying the bird flu at one of its farms in Barron, Wisconsin. The company also notes the influenza strain that turned up there is less potent than the kind that was found in Tennessee, which is like the 2015 strain.

That "low pathogenic" kind of flu is not such a threat to birds, Reuters notes. It's associated mainly with wild birds, some of whom are migrating through Minnesota this time of year.

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