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Lessons from the Avian Flu Outbreak

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In Mid-January, Dubois County, Indiana found itself in the international spotlight as a single barn on a single turkey farm was identified as being contaminated with Highly Pathogenic Avian Flu. This put into action a well-organized and well-planned response plan by state and federal officials. It also triggered a media frenzy. At this writing, the situation has been contained, no new cases of High Path Flu have been found, and the story has moved off the front page. Yet, there are some interesting lessons to be learned from this experience.

  1. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Following the 2015 Avian Flu outbreak that devastated the poultry industry in Iowa, Minnesota, and several other states, the Indiana Board of Animal Health (BOAH) put into place new rules and procedures for just such an event in Indiana. For the most part, it worked extremely well. The coordination between state and federal officials was seamless; and the response was professional, fast, and orderly. This not only helped contain the spread of the virus, but kept public and producer panic to a minimum.
  1. Speak with one voice. This kind of event generates a great deal of media coverage. Delivering a consistent message to all media inquiries and keeping misinformation to a minimum tends to limit media manipulation. For example, from the opening press advisory there was a statement, printed in bold letters at the beginning of the release that stated Avian Flu posed no public health or food safety threat. This statement was posted in all subsequent releases. This helped squelch the media’s desire to turn this into a public panic.
  1. Give people the facts. The BOAH response was factual, scientific, and to the point. This also helped quell public concerns. While many consumers were shocked by the number of birds being killed and were queasy about the detailed descriptions of how the depopulations were done, I think the failure to hide these facts or sugar coat them gave people a feeling of confidence that the situation was being handled professionally. While animal activist groups tried to make this an issue, it never really got anywhere.
  1. Agriculture can survive a crisis. When it comes to publicity, the poultry industry has been rather skittish. I have had leaders of the poultry industry tell me, “We just like to stay under the radar.” This is philosophy that I do not condone, and one that is almost impossible to achieve. The vertical structure of the industry has given it more control its public image than other livestock sectors, still the Avian Flu issue was out of its control. As noted above, however, the industry came through the outbreak unscathed for the most part. This should serve as a lesson to others in ag: if you prepare and execute a well thought out plan, you can avoid or at least minimize the impact of a crisis.

I hope the Indiana Avian Flu outbreak is over; but, if we have more cases, I feel confident the state will be able to deal with the situation.

By Gary Truitt