Lessons learned, but still room for improvement

WASHINGTON“Avian influenza poses a major threat to both our economy because of its potential impact on the poultry industry and, in the long-term, to public health,” Chairman Johnson said in his written opening statement for a hearing Wednesday held by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Johnson and other committee members heard testimony on the impact of this spring’s avian influenza outbreak and how America needs to be better prepared for a potential outbreak this fall. 

Testifying at Wednesday’s hearing was Wisconsin farm owner, Scott Schneider, who also serves as president of the Wisconsin Poultry and Egg Industries Association and was personally impacted by this year’s outbreak. 

Schneider testified that a week after recognizing his flock of 200,000 cage-free egg layers was affected by the virus, his flock was reduced to zero. “Although containment and biosecurity efforts have been admirable, survival of my family farm and the American egg industry at large depends upon meaningful protection against future outbreaks,” Schneider told the committee. 

In an effort to understand the process of flock depopulation and discuss what can be improved, Johnson asked Schneider to walk through the timeline of his own experience with the process.  “How long did it take USDA to get out to your property to inspect and order the destruction of the flock?” Johnson asked. 

Schneider said that the period between a presumptive positive of the virus and the arrival of the USDA to his farm was four days. Depopulation then began on day seven or eight. 

Jack Gelb, director of the Avian Biosciences Center at the University of Delaware, testified that the depopulation process should ideally be completed within 24 – 48 hours but that it hinges on the identification of the virus. “The presumptive positive is made by a local or regional laboratory,” he told Johnson. “The confirmation must come, and this is very important, from the national laboratory in Ames [Iowa] before it’s actually a done deal so to speak.” 

“What is the best case scenario in terms of Mr. Schneider calling somebody, you collecting a sample – how quickly could you have that confirmed?” Johnson asked Gelb. 

Gelb said that the presumptive positive tests can be done in about three hours and then shipped overnight; the additional time comes from the need for confirmation from the national laboratory in Ames. “You’re basically waiting then, that additional 24 hours, before you can take action in terms of initiating flock depopulation,” he said. 

“So we could have destroyed that flock of chickens within a day or two, within your guidelines of 24 – 48 hours, rather than 7 days, which then again increases the likelihood that these outbreaks won’t be contained,” Johnson noted. “There’s a real top priority of what we ought to do as a federal government to speed up that process, to limit the damage.” 

John Clifford, chief veterinary officer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) told Johnson that speeding up the confirmation process was one lesson learned from this year’s outbreak. The USDA has begun implementing plans to base the depopulation of flocks on presumptive positives, he said, cutting the time spent waiting for confirmation from the national laboratory in Ames. 

In looking at other lessons to be learned, Schneider commented that there is room for improvement in the indemnity payment formula. “The indemnification could be based on the future value of the eggs that are supposed to be produced from those hens,” he told Johnson. “It’s the value of those eggs that are going to be produced, that’s where, if there was an indemnity payment based on that future value, that would have helped me out a lot.” 

“There’s got to be some indemnification, some insurance that will keep you in business,” Johnson agreed. “I’m shocked we don’t have that either as a government program or in private insurance. To me that’s a big take away from this hearing.” 

Also testifying on Wednesday was Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as the assistant surgeon general for U.S. Public Health Service and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and Christopher Currie, director of Homeland Security and Justice at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). 

The chairman’s opening statement can be found here

The full hearing video can be seen here.