Bird flu has wiped out 5 percent of South Dakota turkey processor's birds; not hurting exports

Economic Indicators Associated Press

The highly pathogenic strain of bird flu that has prompted the destruction of at least a million turkeys has taken a toll on South Dakota's only commercial turkey processing plant, but its CEO said his export business is virtually unaffected.

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Ken Rutledge said Dakota Provisions has lost about 5 percent of its total production due to the H5N2 strain of avian influenza that has infected farms that sell live birds to the Huron plant.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed this week that a second South Dakota farm, in Kingsbury County, had been hit with the highly contagious strain, one week after tests also showed it at a Beadle County operation. And North Dakota State Veterinarian Susan Keller said Friday the National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Iowa confirmed the H5N2 strain in a flock of 40,000 turkeys in Dickey County, which borders South Dakota in the southeast.

Once an infection is confirmed at a farm, all surviving birds on the property are typically killed to prevent it from spreading. Nearly 1.1 million birds in the Midwest have had to be destroyed since early March on at least 20 farms.

The USDA does not compensate farmers for birds killed by the disease itself but does reimburse them for birds that have to be destroyed as a precaution.

Rutledge said Dakota Provisions processes birds from the farms that have been impacted in both South Dakota and North Dakota. Its Minnesota farms haven't been affected yet.

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"It probably will not impact our ability to service our customers but is a serious impact in terms of lost volume at our plant and, obviously, is a severe impact to the growers themselves," Rutledge said.

"In terms of sales revenue, it's going to haven impact on us. No question."

Some countries have banned turkey exports from certain U.S. states, like Minnesota, and other countries, including China and Russia, have banned imports from the entire U.S, said Dr. Dustin Oedekoven, South Dakota's state veterinarian.

Rutledge said his export business is almost fully intact because his trading partners that have banned imports — Hong Kong, Thailand and China — receive mostly smaller parts of the bird like gizzards, livers and hearts.

"We have some minor parts that we do routinely send to the Far East, and those items are banned and we're not able to ship those," he said. "Our major trade partner for Dakota Provisions — I mean our overwhelming trade partner — is Mexico."

Mexico is among the countries scaling back bans on imports to just include affected counties in Minnesota, which is huge because it's by far the biggest foreign customer for U.S. turkey, said Jim Sumner, president of the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council.

"If Mexico were doing the same thing that the countries in the Far East are doing, then we would have a serious problem," Rutledge said.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said this week she wants to make it clear to federal officials that other countries should not use the outbreak as an excuse to block U.S. turkey imports.

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Associated Press writer Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis contributed to this story.