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Reason and Reassurance at Senate Hearing on HPAI

  

Jul 10, 2015

    

A hearing on Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) before the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee under the chairmanship of Pat Roberts (R-KS) took place on The July 7th. The two-hour session was characterized by a reasoned and accurate recounting of facts and incorporated a candid assessment of the future by Dr. John Clifford, Chief Veterinary Officer of the USDA and Dr. David Swayne, Director of the Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory (SEPRL)-ARS-USDA.

Testimony was also provided by Jim Dean, Chairman of United Egg Producers, Brad Moline representing the National Turkey Federation, Ken Klippen of Egg Farmers of America and Dr. Thomas Elam an agricultural economist who reviewed the financial impact of the 2015 HPAI outbreak.

The Spring 2015 H5N2 outbreak in the upper Midwest was the most extensive and costly animal health emergency in the history of the U.S. It is now evident that the disease has been contained with no new cases reported for 20 days.

From the outset, clear and unequivocal messages from the USDA, state officials and the CDC were instrumental in reassuring the public that the infection was not transmissible to humans and the virus was not carried on eggs or turkey meat entering the food chain.  In his testimony, Dr. Clifford emphasized that the outbreak did not impose any risk to either food safety or public health.

  

From the prepared statements and response to questions, the live streaming of the broadcast and as a replay, the Hearing can be characterized under the following headings:-

Economic Impact

  • Dr. Thomas Elam calculated losses accruing to various segments of the poultry industry and other stakeholders.
  • Increased consumer spending as a result of escalation in the price of eggs, egg products and turkeys was estimated at $3 billion.  The cost to egg consumers was high due to the estimated 12 to18 months it will take to restore production to pre-HPAI levels. This is based on the temporal restraints of growing replacement pullets and the phased repopulation of farms.
  • Producers and integrators lost in region of $1.6 billion with $500 million accruing to the turkey industry and $1.1 billion for egg producers.  It is noted that about 85 percent of the hens and pullets depleted as a result of infection were committed to the liquid and products segment of the industry which was disproportionately impacted relative to shell-egg production.
  • The broiler industry, although unaffected, lost approximately $1.2 billion in export sales as a result of inappropriate and unjustified embargos placed on the entire U.S.  Dr. Elam did however note that the loss might be reduced as leg quarters would be sold on the domestic market although this may depress the realization from white meat.
  • According to testimony by Dr. John Clifford, expenditure on indemnity and control has exceeded $500 million which represents approximately half of the 2015 APHIS discretionary budget.
  • Additional but extensive losses have accrued to communities in Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska which have been impacted by plant closures and furloughs of farm employees and interruption of operations on affected farms.

Logistic Issues

  • Contractors under the control of APHIS were eventually able to implement the sequence of euthanasia, depletion from houses and eventually disposal.  Dr. Clifford pointed to the problems of dealing with the need to either incinerate or transfer 30 million carcasses to landfills in Iowa alone.  Jurisdictional disputes and legal considerations relating to liability impeded rapid action.
  • It was clear that the contingency planning in relation to depletion of floor-housed flocks was adequate.  The application of carbon dioxide foam was effective in euthanizing turkeys and layer flocks.  In contrast, the magnitude of the challenge to remove and euthanize cage-housed layers maintained at high density was under-appreciated in USDA planning.  In the event, the rate of depletion ranged from 30,000 to 100,000 hens per day per team depending on the configuration of cages in houses.
  • The major item of contention related by producer-witnesses related to mis-information provided by USDA officials and contractors to farmers especially during the first month of the Midwest outbreak.
  • It was evident that inefficiency, delays and conflicts occurred during the early phase of the control program. These problems were resolved by assigning experienced APHIS administrators to Minnesota in May and to Iowa in June.

Indemnity

  • Most of the negative comments expressed by turkey and egg-industry related to procedural delays by APHIS in assessing flocks and processing indemnity claims.  During May, losses were experienced by producers due to the delay between provisional diagnosis and depletion since infected flocks died at a high rate from HPAI.  When this deficiency was recognized, APHIS amended protocols and expedited assessment of flocks.
  • It is obvious that the quantum of indemnity was initially set too low for both hens and turkeys. Accordingly adjustments were introduced during the course of the outbreak.
  • Indemnity for birds euthanized by APHIS was insufficient to compensate for the costs of decontamination and the loss of income associated with the prolonged period before repopulation of houses was allowed. This was especially the case with egg-producing farms.  There was evident criticism relating to directions and requirements for decontamination whether carried out by contractors on behalf of APHIS or by producers.
  • It was suggested that an insurance program should be introduced similar to the benefits extended to farmers faced with crop losses as a result of climatic extremes.  Commercial insurance is however offered by underwriters but the premium is so high based on the risk and consequences of HPAI infection that this approach would only be practical with Federal support.

Vaccination

  • Consistent with previous comments by the USDA, Dr. John Clifford emphasized that vaccination has a role to play in prevention and control of HPAI and must be considered as a component of an integrated approach to avian influenza.  Dr. David Swayne who is possibly the World’s leading authority on the molecular biology of avian influenza and vaccination noted that it is possible to suppress clinical outbreaks but not to eradicate the disease through vaccination.  Dr. Clifford categorically stated that USDA intended to build a “vaccine bank”. He did not specify the circumstances under which vaccine would be allowed or whether an HVT-vectored product would be administered at the hatchery or an inactivated emulsion by parenteral administration to growing flocks.
  • The turkey and layer industries clearly favor introduction of vaccines especially to protect breeding stock and new placements in anticipation of possible future introduction of HPAI by migratory waterfowl.  As previously reviewed by CHICK-CITE and EGG-CITE, the implementation of vaccination would result in embargos over exports of leg quarters by the broiler industry.  Dr. Clifford confirmed that following consultation with the veterinary regulators of importing countries that in the event of introduction of vaccination, suspension of imports from the U.S. would be imposed. Acceptance of vaccination would depend on veterinary authorities being assured of the absence of risk associated with importation of products from the U.S.  Given that the outbreak appeared to be under control by late June, the decision to implement vaccination was deferred.
  • The Southeastern Poultry Research Laboratory is currently working on innovative vaccines, which when developed will be released to the private sector.
  • Irrespective of the type of vaccine used, USDA-APHIS will have to establish protocols to justify initiation of immunization, types of DIVA-compliant products, duration of use and the exit strategy.  Decisions to use a vaccine in future outbreaks must have the prior  acceptance of importing nations and must take into account the OIE principles of regionalization for poultry products and compartmentalization in the case of breeding stock.

Future Action

  • Drs. Clifford and Swayne acknowledged the possibility of dissemination of HPAI virus in all four U.S. flyways with southward migration of free living birds in the Fall and a re-introduction during the Spring of 2016.
  • USDA has developed a “doomsday scenario” for a subsequent outbreak which might involve as many as 500 affected farms in 20 states.  Contingency planning is currently in progress to address outbreaks based on the experience gained during the most recent quarter of 2015.
  • The USDA-APHIS in conjunction with Land Grant universities has conducted a preliminary epidemiologic study of the HPAI outbreak.  There was no single factor or deficiency identified which resulted in widespread dissemination of HPAI.  Current thinking is that a number of defects in both Structural and Operational biosecurity spread H5N2 virus among farms after the initial introduction by migratory waterfowl.  This assumption is supported by molecular assay of viruses which disclosed commonality based on gene sequencing of isolates from farms in control areas. It was the contention of one witness that the USDA should expedite the release of information relating to the epidemiologic study and provide specific recommendations to upgrade biosecurity.
  • The USDA-APHIS will assign a case liaison officer to each outbreak farm in future cases to provide specific information, assist with required documentation for indemnity and to advise on policy with regard to depletion, disposal and decontamination.  This approach will alleviate problems experienced by farmers during the early stages of the outbreak.  The liaison officers would also assist with the compliance agreements relating to cleaning and restocking.
  • It was evident from testimony provided by both Drs. Swayne and Clifford that USDA has been restrained in its capabilities and activities by budget cuts imposed over recent years.  Dr. Clifford noted that his $500 million annual budget allows for 1,800 personnel including scientific, technical and administrative functions.  In the recent outbreak, it was necessary to reassign a high proportion of his complement to HPAI on a rotational basis. This would create problems in the future if concurrent avian, bovine or porcine disease emergencies were to occur.  Dr. Swayne pointed to the delays in assigning funds to the upgrading and expansion of the SEPRL.  An amount of $45 million was allocated in the 2015 budget with over $130 million for 2016.  Enhanced facilities will be required to conduct research on diagnostic technology, susceptibility of poultry species and development of vaccines all of which are currently restrained by facilities and personnel.

Overview of the Hearing

From the testimony provided it is evident that although contingency planning had been carried out by USDA prior to 2015, the spatial and temporal extent of the outbreak resulting in a high  number of incident cases overwhelmed the Agency in April and May.  Resourceful and innovative management and reasoned decisions by administrators were applied to respond as swiftly as possible to he challenges faced by outbreaks on both turkey growing farms and large in-line egg breaking complexes.

Successful termination of the HPAI outbreak was facilitated by cooperation among federal, state and local agencies and industry associations. Other factors included the probability that migratory waterfowl had ceased excreting virus by late June and many susceptible farms had in fact been infected and depleted.

A number of lessons have been learned all of which were frankly reviewed by Drs. Clifford and Swayne in their prepared statements and responses to questions. The Senate Committee was generally complementary in their assessment of the performance of the USDA despite subsequent media reports which assigned undue emphasis on testimony and comments by industry participants.

Faced with a reasonable probability of re-introduction of HPAI in the future, the USDA is in a more favorable position to respond to challenges, interact with the poultry industry and to minimize losses in production while attempting to preserve the export market. 

Implicit in the testimony is the realization that the USDA cannot be responsible alone to protect the poultry industry from catastrophic diseases.  Integrators, contractors and independent producers have a joint obligation to invest in Structural biosecurity and to implement appropriate programs of Operational biosecurity to protect their flocks.