Report faults USDA surveillance for avian flu

Jun 21, 2006 (CIDRAP News) – The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not have adequate measures in place to test for and monitor avian influenza in commercial poultry, an audit by the department's inspector general said yesterday, according to news services.

In the 38-page audit, the inspector general said the USDA relies too much on voluntary testing and reporting from the states and the poultry industry, news agencies said. In addition, according to the audit, testing varies from state to state.

The voluntary reporting makes it difficult for the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to reach valid conclusions, know the level of surveillance in each state, or track the disease, according to a Reuters report published yesterday.

The audit, however, preceded Congress' approval in December of $91 million in supplemental funding to help the USDA battle avian flu, news services reported. The money was part of funds to prepare for the threat of a flu pandemic associated with the H5N1 avian flu virus now circulating widely in Asia.

"Since that time," APHIS spokeswoman Karen Eggert told Reuters, "we've been working to ensure that we've been using those funds for the most critical aspects of avian influenza surveillance and emergency preparedness and response.

"We've reached consensus with [the inspector general] on the items we need to take action on," she said.

As an example of disparities in states' testing, the inspector general detailed how one state fully tests chickens, turkeys, and eggs, while another tests only flocks covered by a federal-state-industry disease-control program, the Associated Press (AP) reported yesterday.

The disparities worry foreign trading partners, according to the audit, as reported by AP. It said that other countries wonder why the United States—the world's largest producer and exporter of poultry—can't provide the number of tests by state, advise whether all types of commercial poultry are tested, or say whether backyard flocks are examined.

One critic of the federal government's handling of avian flu surveillance was Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the Senate Agriculture Committee's senior Democrat, according to the AP story.

"The federal government continues to push the responsibility of finding and responding to a possible outbreak of avian influenza on states," Harkin said.

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

USDA spokeswoman Hallie Pickhardt said the agency "agreed with everything in the report, and we're either doing it or going to be doing it," according to a New York Times story today.

She added, however, that the USDA has no plans to make voluntary industry testing mandatory, according to the Times.

Pickhardt said the USDA is confident in the testing program that poultry producers are implementing. "They've been working very closely with us. This is their livelihood, too, and they have no reason not to report the information."

Instead, the agency will augment voluntary testing with its own checks, Pickhardt told the Times.

The audit, according to Reuters, said that the USDA created a committee to establish a comprehensive surveillance and tracking system, but the committee did not have a leader for most of 2005. A newly hired staff veterinarian has now been assigned as chair of the committee, Reuters reported.

In addition, according to Eggert in the AP story, the inspector general agreed with the agency's plans for fixing problems identified in the audit.

See also:

Mar 26, 2004, CIDRAP News story "US likely to increase testing for avian flu"

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