WASHINGTON â€”Â The deadly bird flu virus that devastated the poultry industry last spring andÂ sent egg prices soaring could reappear, even though noÂ new cases have been detected for months, according toÂ Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
â€œIt can happen at any time,â€ Vilsack said in a recent interview. â€œThere obviously are times when (the risk)Â is higher and lower, but I think the testing and the vigilance has to be ongoing.â€
It’s beenÂ more than six monthsÂ since the last case of avian influenza was found in a commercial flock– inÂ Wright County, Iowa in June. But Vilsack said there are concerns that the arrival ofÂ spring â€” when birds start flying north â€” will likely presentÂ theÂ greatest risk for recurrence.
“Every day that goes by (without a bird flu finding)Â is a good day,” he said.
Earlier this year, the diseaseÂ destroyed nearly 50 million farm birds. Iowa, the nationâ€™s largest egg producer, lost 31.5Â million birds across 18 counties, including about 30Â million laying hens and pullets and 1.1 million turkeys.Â The virus cost the stateâ€™s economy $1.2 billionÂ through lost egg, chicken and turkey production, as well as lost wages and tax revenue, according to a study commissioned by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.
The rapid spread of the virus posed a challenge that at timesÂ seemedÂ overwhelming, asÂ USDA andÂ state officials struggled to quickly dispose of dead birds in the hardest-hitÂ areas. Some poultry operations failed to closelyÂ follow biosecurityÂ measures to help curtail the spread of the disease.
Since last spring, officials have studied what worked during the outbreak and what needsÂ improving. Biosecurity efforts have been strengthened at poultry operations, and the USDA has stockpiled vaccines.
Many were bracingÂ for theÂ virus to recur whenÂ birds migrated south for the winter, but that apparently hasn’t happened so far.Â John Clifford, USDA’sÂ chief veterinary officer.Â said in October that if the virus doesn’t returnÂ by early January, â€œwe probably should be in pretty good shapeâ€ before attention turns to theÂ spring.
Vilsack said the poultry industry and federal agriculture officials “together learned lessons.”
“I thinkÂ given the suddenness of this, it would be hard to be overly critical,â€ he said. â€Having said that, if it re-emerges, the test will be whether or not we learned from that earlier experience and whether we do any better job than before.â€
The USDA spent about $1 billion on the outbreak. ThatÂ included costs for surveillance, testing, cleaning, disinfecting and disposal as well asÂ $200 million in indemnity payments helpingÂ farmers cover their losses. USDA has hired hundreds of veterinarians and other temporary workers to respond to any future outbreak and is working with state officials to take 41,000 samples fromÂ wild fowlÂ through March.