WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me., Monday said the Department of Agriculture must enlist the help of the Department of Homeland Security to prevent and control an outbreak of bird flu in this country.

The Senators’ conclusion is based on a Government Accountability Office report that found that the USDA has taken initial steps in preventing and controlling an outbreak of Avian influenza virus but is not tapping important federal resources available to it.

In a joint statement, the Senators said: “Quick containment of a bird flu outbreak in this country is essential to reducing the disastrous impact it would have on the poultry industry and on the life threatening dangers of a human pandemic. USDA has taken initial steps toward preventing an outbreak. But we are troubled that it has not fully taken advantage of the resources and capabilities of DHS. USDA must recognize DHS’ role in preparing for and responding to disasters of any kind and must put to good use the resources and coordination capabilities available to it. A failure to do so puts the American people at needless risk.”

The GAO report notes that the USDA has moved to control and prevent a bird flu outbreak in the U.S. by taking steps to prevent the importation of poultry contaminated with bird flu and by developing plans to respond to an outbreak if one occurs. However, the report also notes that, while the USDA is the lead federal response agency during a bird flu outbreak, it is not planning appropriately with DHS, which would assume the lead role in coordinating federal agencies if a national emergency were declared.

DHS is uniquely equipped, for example, to ensure that the appropriate agencies respond in a coordinated fashion to potential agricultural, health, and commercial threats and to provide technical assistance to state and local governments in preparing for a disaster.

A highly contagious bird flu outbreak in this country could jeopardize a $28 billion dollar poultry industry and endanger humans if the virus is not quickly contained and mutates to a form that can pass easily among people.

Bird flu has already spread to nearly 60 countries over the past few years, killing millions of birds and more than 190 people.