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Senators question USDA's avian influenza preparations.

USDA is failing to provide national leadership in efforts to prepare for the arrival of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), according to a group of senators who have written to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to voice their concerns.

In June, USDA's inspector general issued a report that found significant gaps in the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service's oversight and preparedness regarding avian influenza. The senators claim that the weaknesses in USDA's programs to combat avian influenza identified by the IG "put U.S. agriculture in a vulnerable position."

Among other things, the letter charges that APHIS continues to push the responsibility for finding and responding to a possible outbreak of avian influenza onto states, that many states do not have sufficient resources to develop HPAI surveillance programs on their own and that as a consequence, "some states are adequately prepared, while others are not prepared and do not even have avian influenza response plans."

"It is not enough for the federal government to simply dictate to the states what needs to be done and then tell them 'you're on your own'," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), one of those who signed the letter. "The states need the help of their federal partner to ensure they have the resources they need and to oversee any multi-state efforts that would almost certainly be necessary in the event of an outbreak of avian flu," he said.

The senators ask that USDA provide states with clear standards and resources for developing their avian flu response plans. The letter also expresses concerns that USDA has not done as much as is needed to prepare for outbreaks in multiple states, "which would require extensive interstate coordination."

The letter also emphasizes the need to provide more information to backyard poultry owners on how to identify symptoms of avian flu. "Non-commercial poultry is at higher risk of contracting the disease since these flocks are not confined, and USDA should be working with states to identify communities where maintaining backyard flocks is a common practice so owners can keep an eye out for symptoms of avian flu," say the senators.

They note that although APHIS has handled avian influenza outbreaks before, "there is room for improvement in preparing for HPAI," especially a strain like H5N1, which has devastated many countries in Asia. The United States has not experienced a widespread outbreak of a foreign animal disease as devastating to agriculture as H5N1, they say. "We cannot let past experiences with small-scale HPAI outbreaks allow us to become over-confident or complacent regarding our ability to respond to such a deadly and potentially very destructive disease," they conclude.

In addition to Reid, other senators signing the letter include Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
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Publication:Food & Drink Weekly
Date:Jul 31, 2006
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