Top USDA veterinarian: Bird flu outbreak may last for years and be 'devastating' to poultry

The nation's poultry industry may have to live with a deadly bird flu strain for several years, which would be "devastating," the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief veterinary officer said Thursday.

Dr. John Clifford also said that while new cases should drop to close to zero once the weather warms up and kills off the virus, there's "very likely" to be a resurgence this fall when the waterfowl that are natural carriers of avian influenza fly south for the winter.

Clifford spoke on a visit to Minnesota, the state hit hardest by outbreaks that have cost Midwest producers over 2 million turkeys and chickens since early March. He said the fact that the highly pathogenic H5N2 virus has already appeared as far east as southern Ontario means there's an uncomfortable risk of it spreading to the East Coast where much of the U.S. broiler chicken industry is based.

"If it sticks around and continues it's going to be very devastating to our poultry industry and our international markets, trade markets, as well as the loss domestically," Clifford said in an interview with The Associated Press. "That's why we have to really use this time appropriately to do all that we can to determine how best we can address and prevent introductions in the future."

Authorities have confirmed H5N2 outbreaks at more than 30 commercial poultry farms in the Midwest, including 22 in Minnesota. All were turkey operations except for one chicken farm in Wisconsin. On Thursday, Wisconsin's agriculture department officials said two more farms had tested positive for infections in the H5 family, and they expected further tests would show it is H5N2.

Officials say there's no risk to public health or the food supply. Economists don't expect the outbreaks to affect retail prices much because the birds that have been killed by the virus itself or euthanized to stop its spread represent less than 1 percent of the 235 million turkeys produced in the U.S. last year.

While some USDA officials have told Minnesota officials the virus could be a problem for three to five years, Clifford said it's impossible to be certain.

"It could be around that long, and there's just no way to know for sure," he said.

Experts believe Minnesota is the epicenter because it's the top turkey producing state — raising around 46 million turkeys a year — and its thousands of lakes and wetlands naturally attract large numbers of migrating ducks and other waterfowl. Turkeys are most susceptible, but chickens also die from the virus. While waterfowl can carry avian influenza viruses and spread them through their droppings and oral secretions, they don't usually become sick from them.

The ducks blamed for bringing H5N2 to Minnesota and other Midwestern states migrate through the country's midsection.

The broiler chicken industry, which produces chickens for meat, is clustered along the East Coast in states such as Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and Maryland. Clifford said the waterfowl that brought the virus to an infected farm in southern Ontario are likely from flocks that either migrate along the East Coast or intermingle with flocks do.

The USDA has sent about 60 people to Minnesota to reinforce the state's response. State officials have asked U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to ensure that enough funding remains available. Clifford estimated that the USDA has already spent $20 million to $30 million to reimburse farmers for birds that were euthanized and on other costs. He also said the secretary has the authority to provide additional emergency funding, and it's been requested as the agency gears up for a new round this fall.

The federal government is also working to limit the harm from export bans imposed by around 40 countries that are already hurting both the turkey and chicken industries, which combined export more than $5 billion worth of products annually, Clifford said.

"We've already lost hundreds of millions of dollars in those markets," he said