U lab to use $300,000 in state money to improve poultry testing

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There are many answers to why the chicken crossed the road. But if it was sick, try asking someone at the Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory, located in the heart of Minnesota poultry country.

The lab, a partnership between the University and the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, tests more than 300,000 samples a year to monitor the health of the state’s poultry population from its Kandiyohi County location.

State lawmakers gave $300,000 for renovations to the Willmar lab in their billion-dollar capital investment borrowing bill.

That’s good news for the state’s poultry industry. Minnesota is the national leader in turkey production, raising about 18 percent of the 257 million turkeys sold nationwide, according to industry organizations. Minnesota farmers also produce about 2.1 billion eggs and 45 million chickens for eating every year.

Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association and the state’s broiler chicken and egg association, said the industry will benefit greatly from the renovated lab.

“It’s going to improve efficiency; it’s going to improve capability, not only for the needs we have now, but it’ll put the lab in a better position to address the needs we haven’t thought about,” Olson said.

Jim Collins, director of the University’s main Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, said the satellite lab will be renovated to address “some deferred maintenance issues” and to make room for more employees and equipment.

“The footprint of the whole lab will be such that it’s much more operationally efficient and captures space that’s poorly utilized right now,” Collins said.

The lab’s five University employees analyze blood and swab samples for viruses and bacteria that can threaten public health or cut into farms’ profits.

The lab tests about 75,000 samples for avian flu each year.

Bird flu can take many forms, said Andre Ziegler, a University poultry pathologist.

Highly pathogenic strains can kill entire flocks overnight. One strain of bird flu, H5N1, can infect humans and has killed more than 120 people worldwide.

Most strains, however, don’t affect humans.

“Mercifully, the vast majority of all of the avian influenzas out there are low pathogenic, and that’s just a mild respiratory disease,” Ziegler said.

Birds with a flu show many of the same signs humans do, with runny noses, watery eyes, fever, coughing and decreased appetite.

Sick birds are expensive for farmers: Birds that don’t eat can’t plump to market size and farmers struggle with the high costs of medicine.

Olson estimated avian pneumovirus cost the industry about $15 million each year before the poultry testing lab started tracking the virus.

The lab also tests for salmonella, which doesn’t bother birds.

“With salmonella, it’s not so much that it’s really knocking the birds for a loop, but there’s the concern about the foodborne disease,” Ziegler said.

State Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, pushed for the renovation funding late in the legislative session to try to prevent a large-scale bird flu outbreak in Minnesota.

“Early detection would come from this laboratory,” he said. “As soon as they detect it in a flock, we would isolate that flock and hopefully it never moves beyond the walls of that barn.”

Education is an important part of the laboratory’s work, said Dale Lauer, who has supervised the lab since 1987, when it was just him and two lab technicians.

“I think there’s a lot of bad or misinformation out there (about bird flu), and people always hang on to the worst-case scenario,” Lauer said.

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