New poultry testing lab opens in Willmar to track avian flu

In an effort to help protect Minnesota’s $5 billion poultry industry, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health has opened a new testing facility in Willmar.

The new Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory will enable the Board of Animal Health to better track infectious diseases and respond more quickly to a disease crisis, such as the avian influenza outbreak in 2015.

Final figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show 110 confirmed cases of avian flu in Minnesota during the 2015 outbreak. But, it led to the destruction of five million turkeys and four million egg-laying hens in the state. The University of Minnesota Extension estimated the losses at more than $310 million.

Willmar is the epicenter of the state’s turkey production, with a major processing plant for Jennie-O based in the city. The Board of Animal Health’s former testing lab conducted 300,000 avian testing procedures a year, but the lab was small and did not have the space to adequately respond to the avian flu crisis.

“It’s a big deal,” said Dr. Shauna Voss with the Animal Board of Health.  “It’s going to help the industry be better able to respond to disease events to be more prepared and better facilitate collaborations and partnerships.”

The new lab contains 11,900 square feet of space to house several different diagnostic areas. There is a new intake room to accept incoming blood and tissue samples from poultry producers.  For the first time, there is also a lab to perform necropsies on carcasses – investigative work that used to be done in the field. There is also an expanded lab to conduct salmonella testing and space for emergency management in the event of another virus outbreak.

Most importantly, the lab is now able to conduct what is called PCR testing. This is the molecular tracking of viruses by replicating and matching their DNA.

“This PCR testing is a tremendous asset for the poultry industry to identify disease right now,” said Dr. Dale Lauer, the lab’s director.  “It will also cut down on our response time if we run into a horrible disease event will allow our responders to get out to the farm quicker.”

Dr. Voss agrees that the PCR testing is the biggest game changer for both the lab and producers because samples will longer have to be sent to St. Paul for analysis.

The $8.5 million facility was the result of a bipartisan effort by both Gov. Mark Dayton and the Minnesota Legislature.  The funding was quickly added to the 2015 bonding bill during the height of the avian flu crisis. 

Lauer says the result is a now a one-stop shop facility for poultry producers.

“It’s a laboratory where we can get our regulatory testing done, where we can get our diagnostic testing done where we can talk to veterinarians who really understand your problems and your concerns,” Lauer said.  “The relationships that are developed, it’s a good thing. It’s a great thing.”