Jennie-O turkey farm in Minnesota hit by deadly bird flu

Published 9:58 am Thursday, April 9, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS — A ninth Minnesota turkey farm has been hit by a form of bird flu that’s deadly to poultry, this time in a large Jennie-O-Turkey Store operation that has 310,000 turkeys, federal authorities and company officials said Wednesday.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said tests confirmed it was the same highly pathogenic H5N2 strain of avian influenza that infected eight other farms in Minnesota, the country’s top turkey-producing state. Those farms have lost about 373,000 turkeys to the outbreaks between the disease itself and birds that were killed to prevent the disease from spreading.

Minnesota Board of Animal health spokeswoman Bethany Hahn said the Meeker County operation has 12 barns on the site.

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Just one barn was infected, and she said the USDA is working with the producer on what to do with the turkeys in the other barns.

Jennie-O, a division of Austin-based Hormel Foods Corp. that’s headquartered in Willmar, said on its website that it’s the first company-owned facility to test positive for the virus. Three previous confirmed cases connected to Jennie-O were flocks that were being raised by independent contractors. Those were in Kandiyohi, Stearns and Lac qui Parle counties.

Hormel representatives declined to comment directly but pointed to its food safety measures at Jennie-O as a sign it remains committed to food safety.

“HPAI is an animal health issue, not a food safety issue,” Michelle M. Kromm, chief veterinarian for Hormel, said in a statement on the Jennie-O website, “Please rest assured that your Jennie-O products are safe to eat and always remember to follow proper handling and cooking instructions.”

Jennie-O had a big quarter in Hormel’s 2015 first quarter, accounting for 18 percent of net sales after increasing operating profit by 56 percent and dollar sales by 10 percent.

Officials say the risk to the public is low and there’s no danger to the food supply.

But another Meeker County turkey producer, Greg Langmo, of Litchfield, is worried his farm could be next.

“You just wonder if the Grim Reaper is going to knock at your door today,” he said. “It’s horrible. You have to understand that people in this business make their livelihood caring for animals. And we work really hard to make sure they’re properly watered and fed, their bedding is right and air is right, every minute of the day.”

Langmo said producers have already done everything they can think of to keep their turkeys healthy by keeping out any unnecessary people, equipment or wildlife that could carry the virus into their barns. He said they’re deferring non-emergency maintenance so they don’t have to let repair workers inside. They’re making sure rodent bait stations are in order. His employees are also spraying disinfectant around feed bins, service entrances and other areas with foot traffic in their barns.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar met Wednesday with state Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson, state Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger and other state and federal officials to discuss the importance of a coordinated response to contain the disease and to protect the state’s turkey industry. She plans to meet with turkey growers in southwestern Minnesota later this week.

The Minnesota Democrat sent a letter Wednesday to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, thanking his agency for its quick response and urging him to ensure that funding keeps flowing for control efforts and to compensate producers for their losses.

Jennie-O sites affected

• Meeker County, announced April 8, Jennie-O Turkey Store facility

• Kandiyohi County, announced April 7, independent contract

• Stearns County, announced April 6, independent contract

• Lac qui Parle County, announced March 27, independent contract