Poultry farmers 'disheartened' as bird flu detected in two Minnesota flocks

The bird flu virus that decimated poultry flocks in Minnesota seven years ago has returned, with state authorities confirming Saturday that they have detected cases in two flocks.

The virus was found in a commercial turkey flock in Meeker County and in a backyard flock with a mix of chickens, ducks and geese in Mower County, according to the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.

The H5N1 virus, while highly contagious among birds, poses a low risk for the public or food safety, according to The Center for Disease Control. No human cases have been detected in the United States.

But Minnesota is the country's largest turkey producer, and news of the outbreak has poultry farmers across the state on edge. They fear a repeat of the 2015 outbreak, when the virus spread over to 100 sites across 23 counties, resulting in the loss of approximately 9 million birds and $650 million in damages, according to state figures.

Dr. Jill Nezworski, a veterinarian who is on the board of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, said that while turkey farmers were "disheartened" by news of the new outbreak, there was also hope that biosecurity measures taken by the industry in the aftermath of 2015 crisis would help reduce the impact.

She urged all farmers and owners of backyard flocks to do their part to help prevent the spread of the virus. 

"This virus is an indiscriminate killer affecting all size of farms, from the handful of chickens in a family's backyard to our largest commercial operations. We all need to take the necessary steps to prevent this disease from spreading," Nezworski said in a press conference Saturday.  

MBAH executive director Dr. Beth Thompson said the agency and local governments in areas with dense poultry populations had also learned from the 2015 crisis.

"We have a really robust emergency response plan in place because of the lessons learned from that experience. We have an incident management team that has already been stood up," Thompson said.

Since 2015, backyard flocks have become more common in Minnesota and across the country ,with cities and counties passing laws to permit them. Tom Peterson, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said the state had "cast a wide net" to inform backyard growers of the outbreak and the steps they can take to help contain it.

"The messages I'm getting today from those people that have those smaller flocks, they really want to protect them. So they're taking those steps to cover them, limit their exposure to wild birds. And I think they care as much about the birds as a large facility. And so they'll be taking those steps that they can," he said.

The MBAH is urging the owners of flocks of all sizes to review the state's recommended biosecurity measures. Farmers who see possible signs of infection in their flocks, such as a drop in water consumption or an increase in deaths, should immediately contact a veterinarian.

Nezworski also urged the public to show empathy to any poultry farmers they know.

"Biosecurity takes a lot of effort from our farmers. Please give them a break when you interact with them out in the community. Their livelihood is on the line and they're pretty stressed out right now," she said.