Bird flu returns to Minnesota poultry farms, first confirmed cases reported in the state since 2015

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The Minnesota Board of Animal Health Saturday announced a viral alert for the state’s billion-dollar poultry industry, with the first confirmed cases of bird flu here since 2015.

“The virus is lethal,” says Dr. Beth Thompson, the board’s executive director, and the state veterinarian. “If it gets into a flock, whether a smaller backyard flock or a commercial flock, the birds will pass it bird to bird, and they will start to die.”

Thompson says the virus, known as H5N1 Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, or HPAI, has been confirmed at two sites, in Meeker County and Mower County.

Authorities say the Meeker outbreak was in a commercial flock of nearly 300,000 turkeys.

The Mower County case, they say, involves a backyard flock of seventeen ducks, geese, and chickens.

“High pathogenic avian influenza is an incredibly virulent virus,” notes John Zimmerman, a poultry and crop farmer in Northfield. “[It’s] probably transmitted to domestic poultry through wild birds, specifically ducks and geese, and it is terminal, it is 100% fatal.”

Animal Health officials say on Friday, a state lab confirmed the new cases, discovered earlier in the week.

Experts say domestic birds affected with the virus typically become quiet, even depressed, and stop eating and drinking.

Thompson says an emergency response is already underway.

“First of all, the site is quarantined,” she explains. “We set up surveillance around that site to make sure that disease hasn’t spread any further, and then the birds are depopulated, those that are still alive.”

Thompson says infected poultry is euthanized, often with firefighting foam, toxic to the birds within twenty-four hours, so they don’t suffer.

Then, there is the timing.

The Board of Animal Health says the virus is carried by wild waterfowl now migrating across Minnesota that leave animal waste on land or in ponds, accessible to domestic birds.

Thompson advises poultry farmers and owners to be watchful about contact.

“So make sure your poultry has no access to waterfowl, that you’re keeping in contact with your veterinarian if you’re seeing any signs,” she says. “And report any of that to the Board of Animal Health.”

State officials say they don’t want a repeat of the 2015 bird flu outbreak that crippled the poultry industry and triggered $650 million in economic losses.

State ag officials say that outbreak impacted 100 Minnesota farms.

“It was very devastating. I think we lost 9 million birds in our state,” recalls Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen. “The poultry industry in Minnesota accounts for 15% of agriculture receipts in the state, so it’s very significant.”

State agriculture officials are urging commercial and backyard poultry owners to practice biosecurity, keeping domestic and wild birds apart.

“The main goal is to keep anything outside the barn and inside the barn in,” Zimmerman says.

He adds he raises his turkey indoors and takes other measures.

“We have things called Danish entries,” Zimmerman says. “When you enter the barn, you change boots, you change coveralls, and make sure you’re not tracking any bacteria or dirt from outside the barn into the barn.”

Thompson says there are reimbursement protocols in place to help farmers impacted by the outbreak.

She notes the first case of H5N1 HPAI originated in backyard flocks in Newfoundland, Canada.

The second case was traced back to an exhibition flock in the same region.

“The first introduction in North America was in late 2021 in Canada. Since that time, additional introductions in the U.S. include sixty cases in seventeen states,” Thompson says. “Since this is a foreign animal disease and we have USDA veterinary services, there is federal indemnity available for foreign animal diseases, and USDA works directly with the farmers.”

The Board of Animal Health says it’s especially concerned about backyard flocks exposed to wild birds.

The CDC says this particular strain poses a low risk to the public and that poultry remains safe to eat as long as it’s cooked and handled properly.

Thompson says she hopes warmer weather will help since the virus cannot survive in warm spring or summer temperatures.

She says authorities are watching carefully for any additional outbreaks.

“We might be fairly early in this outbreak,” Thompson says. “If you all remember, in 2015, we were still seeing cases in Minnesota into June. With the amount of virus that is currently in the environment in the U.S., we might be seeing more cases here in Minnesota.”