The U.S. Department of Agriculture is now reworking the system of voluntary reporting by states and private industry monitoring the incidence of avian flu in commercial poultry flocks. A June report by the department's inspector general says the present system is unreliable and keeps the department in the dark. According to The Associated Press, the inspector general found the department does not know the extent of avian flu 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.
These gaps raise public health and economic risks. While there have thankfully been no recorded outbreaks in the United States of the Asian bird flu strain that has created havoc among Asian commercial flocks in the past two years and caused 128 deaths, it is more likely than not to arrive on these shores, carried by migratory birds. Catching and quarantining any outbreaks at the earliest stage is the best way to prevent the virus from spreading and exposing Americans to the fatal disease. It is also the best way to forestall having to destroy large numbers of commercial fowl.
The economic impact of Asian avian flu on the U.S. economy could be significant. The U.S. is the world's biggest producer and exporter of poultry meat, the AP reports. The inspector general at the Agriculture Department said disparities in state testing procedures and coverage worry foreign trading partners. Flaws in the department's handling of mad cow disease exposed by isolated outbreaks and detailed in previous inspector general reports, have already caused losses among meat exporters. Prompt action is needed to upgrade the avian flu reporting system if similar or larger export losses in poultry are to be avoided.
According to the AP, the report also raised concerns with how the Agriculture Department tracks potential instances of bird flu. It found that employees didn't complete investigations within a week, as the department requires. The inspector general's recommendations "have only furthered our plans to prepare and respond to any avian influenza outbreak," said department spokeswoman Karen Eggert, noting that the inspector general agreed with department plans for fixing the problems identified in the report. That should be verified in a follow-up report by the IG as soon as possible.