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Report: USDA lacks plan for bird flu testing

The Bush administration lacks a comprehensive plan for testing and monitoring bird flu in commercial poultry, a federal audit says.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Bush administration lacks a comprehensive plan for testing and monitoring bird flu in commercial poultry, a federal audit says.

The industry is testing every flock for bird flu, but the tests are voluntary and there is no method for reporting findings to the federal government, the Agriculture Department’s inspector general said Tuesday.

As a result, the department does not know the extent of surveillance being done in each state and is not gathering consistent data that would indicate whether the deadly Asian strain of bird flu is present, and if so, how widespread it is, according to the audit.

In response to the criticism, the department said it was developing a strategy for assembling such a plan, promising to design a national bird flu testing system by Oct. 31.

The inspector general’s recommendations “have only furthered our plans to prepare and respond to any avian influenza outbreak,” said department spokeswoman Karen Eggert.

Department officials told the inspector general they only recently got the funding necessary for such a plan. The inspector general agreed with department plans for fixing the problems identified in the report, Eggert noted.

USDA relying too heavily on states?
Critics worry that the department is relying too heavily on states for surveillance. The report noted there are disparities in how states do the testing.

“The federal government continues to push the responsibility of finding and responding to a possible outbreak of avian influenza on states,” said Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the Senate Agriculture Committee’s senior Democrat.

“As a result, USDA does not have a comprehensive national plan for surveillance and monitoring of poultry flocks and states lack adequate federal resources to respond to potential avian influenza outbreaks,” Harkin said.

Bird flu is commonly found in U.S. poultry, but the deadly Asian strain that has killed at least 128 people has not been found in this country. So far, most human cases have been linked to infected birds, but scientists fear the virus will mutate into a highly contagious form that spreads easily among people.

The inspector general identified disparities in how states tests for bird flu; for example, one state fully tests chickens, turkeys and eggs, while another tests only flocks covered by a federal-state-industry program for controlling diseases.

The disparities worry foreign trading partners, the report said. Other countries don’t understand why the U.S. can’t provide the number of tests by state, advise whether all types of commercial poultry are tested or say whether backyard flocks are being tested, the report said.

The U.S. is the world’s biggest producer and exporter of poultry meat.

The department created a committee to put together a comprehensive surveillance and monitoring plan, but the committee did not have a leader for most of 2005, the report said. A newly hired staff veterinarian has now been assigned to chair the committee.

The report also raised concerns with how the Agriculture Department tracks potential instances of bird flu. Employees didn’t complete investigations within a week, as the department requires. The inspector general found 46 unresolved investigations of potential bird flu, 43 of which were not completed for more than six months.

The department closed the cases after investigators asked about them, saying the work had been finished but not recorded.

Officials still don’t know how much poultry in the U.S. already is being tested or monitored, the report said.

And while testing has been done by states and live bird markets, the findings haven’t been analyzed to draw conclusions about flu in U.S. bird populations or detect changes in types of flu or how widespread it is, the report said.

“Thus, it is difficult or impossible to reach valid conclusions based on the data,” the report said.