Calling the avian flu “one of the largest animal public health emergencies in American history,” Gov. Josh Shapiro last week came to an East Earl Township farm to hear from local farmers and residents about the impact the disease is having on Pennsylvania agriculture.
Shapiro, along with Sen. Scott Martin and Rep. Dave Zimmerman, spoke with the group at Silver Valley Farm on Silver Valley Road just outside of Goodville on March 29 about measures the state is taking to contain the Hi-Path Avian Influenza. Shapiro urged both large and small poultry operations to implement bio-security measures to keep the disease from spreading further among Pennsylvania’s $7.1 billion poultry industry.
“There’s a very serious risk to our agriculture industry, to our economic opportunity, to our state’s position across this country as a leader in the poultry industry, and of course, to people’s livelihoods,” Shapiro said. “And I recognize that folks are undoubtedly worried. But I think it’s also important to note that we are taking action, and we’re trying to address this challenge. And for sake of our farmers and our economy, I believe we need to double down on our efforts.”
Since last April when the Hi-Path Avian Influenza was first detected in Pennsylvania, 31 commercial flocks and 36 backyard flocks have been impacted by the contagious disease, resulting in the killing of more than 4.6 million birds across the state. In the last 30 days, four commercial flocks, 20 backyard flocks and 133,550 birds have been lost in Pennsylvania, with much of the recent loss centered in Lancaster County.
Shapiro said as many as 170 people in the Pa. Department of Agriculture have been designated to work on the avian flu issue, conducting 420,000 tests on both domestic and wild birds to trace the spread of the disease. He said the state has also developed “strict bio-security protocols” for farms to implement, working with the federal government and third-party entities to make sure the plans are in place and followed.
The avian flu response team includes hundreds of veterinarians and specialists from the Pa. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Penn State Extension and PennAg Industries, working with poultry businesses to eliminating the virus on the 67 farms in 15 counties where it has been confirmed.
“Let me be very blunt about this – farmers need to take the steps necessary to implement bio-security measures as quickly and effectively as possible,” Shapiro said. “Even if you just keep some birds in your backyard, the data is showing us right now that smaller flocks, like those backyard flocks, are being infected at a higher rate than some of our larger commercial flocks. It’s a big deal. We need every Pennsylvanian to come together on this and work together and make sure that you’re putting your neighbors’ interests together with your own interest.”
Shapiro highlighted the state’s $25 million fund developed last year by the legislature to help farmers who have had their flocks infected with avian flu to recoup some of their losses when the animals have to be destroyed. He said the fund, which was the first of its kind in the country, has already paid out $8.2 million to farmers, and he wants to add more money into the fund through his new budget proposal.
Shapiro also pointed to other measures he included in his budget to deal with avian flu, including:
- $6 million to support the Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostic Lab System and to reimburse poultry businesses for supplies used by 549 private technicians taking samples from birds;
- $1 million for the Pa. Center for Poultry Excellence at PennAg Industries that is aiding in the response;
- $58.9 million for the Agricultural College Land Scrip Fund, a $1.2 million increase, to support veterinary research at Penn State and the Penn State Extension;
- More than $34 million for the University of Pennsylvania’s Veterinary Activities and Center for Infectious Disease for research, and;
- An additional $2 million for agriculture research, including animal health research.
Martin, the chairman of the Pa. Senate Appropriations Committee and a key legislator in the creation of the avian flu fund, said the disease could have a “severe ripple effect” across the economy if it isn’t dealt with, especially in Lancaster County. Martin thanked the “absolute responsiveness” of the Shapiro administration to the disease, calling their work “tremendous” to deal with the problem.
“For all those who are watching what’s happening here in Pennsylvania, they can have confidence that we’re not only just committed to dealing with this in the here and now, but how best to prepare as we move forward to ensure we have that responsiveness and learning from how we can do things better,” Martin said. “And that starts by taking a real problem and solution approach. I think you’re seeing that happen right now.”
Lisa Graybeal, Deputy Secretary for Animal Health and Food Safety, said March 29 marked the 12th consecutive day that no Hi-Path Avian Influenza was detected in Pennsylvania flocks. Graybeal said the waning cases was still not a reason for poultry producers to “let our guard down,” citing the 800 flocks in 47 states and the loss of 58.6 million birds since last April.
“No matter the size of the operation, every bird on every farm in every chicken coop, field, backyard or poultry house is at risk,” Graybeal said. “It is a dangerous transmissible disease, and we all need to keep that in mind.”
Participants in the round-table discussion were asked whether a vaccine to combat avian flu was available.
Jim Shirk, owner of Silver Valley Farm and a member of the Pa. Department of Agriculture Animal Health & Diagnostic Commission, said avian flu vaccines are currently being discussed on a “global platform” because of the implications of international trade, but it is not currently an option.
“There’s tools that are out there, and we’re well aware of them,” Shirk said. “We have resources to talk about them. But until there’s much more of a geopolitical solution to be able to implement some of these tools, we just need to stay kind of cautious to this point. We don’t want to disrupt and have any unintended circumstances come up where we disrupt trade because we’re trying to do something else.”