Food & Farming

Bill Would Give DEM More Power to Battle Avian Flu Outbreak

Measure would allow the agency to enact quarantine measures on chicken flocks based on suspected presence of infectious disease

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A highly contagious bird flu deadly to poultry is likely heading to Rhode Island, the state Department of Environmental Management is warning. (istock)

PROVIDENCE — State environmental officials are hoping the General Assembly approves a bill that would give the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) more authority to combat a possible outbreak of avian influenza.

House bill H7785, sponsored by Rep. Brandon Potter, D-Cranston, would allow DEM to enact quarantine measures on chicken flocks and other livestock based on the suspected presence of infectious diseases, as opposed to confirmed cases. States across the country, including nearby Connecticut and Massachusetts, have confirmed avian flu cases in domestic poultry.

“The highest-risk farms are the ones that allow access to poultry outdoors, especially if they have potential contact with wild waterfowl,” state veterinarian Scott Marshall said. Chickens, turkeys, pheasants and other domesticated farm birds are at risk for contracting avian flu, he said.

The new strain of avian flu is the third outbreak since 2015, and the first one expected to infect birds in R.I. This year’s outbreak was first detected in wild birds in South Carolina on Jan. 14. As of March 17, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports confirmed cases in 18 states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Maine. DEM officials expect it to be a matter of when, not if, the disease is detected in R.I.; the state is part of the Atlantic flyway, a migratory bird route on which hunter-harvested wild waterfowl have shown signs of the disease in other states.

“This year is the one with the biggest geographic distribution I’ve ever seen,” Marshall said. “We’re seeing cases as far west as Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa, and as far south as Virginia.”

DEM advised commercial farms and backyard chicken keepers to isolate flocks away from any wildlife. The highly contagious strain has a mortality rate of close to 100 percent for infected chickens, and environmental officials are concerned about the commercial impact to the state’s chicken farms.

There is no known case of avian flu in humans, and the risk of animal-to-human transmission is low. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has called it an animal health issue, and reissued guidance to the public that poultry and eggs remain safe when cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.

H7785 would help state officials contain the spread of the flu among domesticated poultry and bring DEM’s authority to contain animal disease in line with neighboring states, according to state environmental officials. The legislation would empower the department to act based on suspicion of the disease, quarantine an expanded area and issue orders for mandatory testing on suspected flocks.

A flock with confirmed cases of avian flu is required by state law to be depopulated and the carcasses disposed of properly. Farmers with infected flocks that have been depopulated are eligible for compensation under federal indemnity funds run by the USDA.

The House approved the bill in a vote March 17. In a prepared statement, Potter thanked his colleagues for its quick passage.

“Bird flu, unfortunately, is absolutely devastating to farms and livestock. If one bird contracts it, it can swiftly infect and kill the whole flock,” he said. “DEM needs to be able to respond very quickly and effectively to stop it from spreading to any other flocks once it is detected.”

The bill was sent to the Senate, where it awaits an official legislative sponsor.

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