LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Avian flu is raging through poultry farms across the United States. It's the largest outbreak in U.S. history - most serious in the middle west but affecting 20 states and tens of millions of birds. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spent last week meeting with farmers, producer groups and government officials in Iowa and Wisconsin. And he joins us now from the studios of Wisconsin Public Radio in Milwaukee. Secretary Vilsack, thank you very much for being with us.
TOM VILSACK: Well, thank you. It's a good opportunity to be with you.
WERTHEIMER: The size of this outbreak, Mr. Secretary, is unprecedented, I understand. What has the impact been so far on the U.S. poultry industry?
VILSACK: Well, there are roughly 220 or so facilities that have been impacted and affected by this - most of them commercial operations. Roughly 47 million birds - turkeys, chickens, laying hens - have been impacted. It represents roughly about 10 percent of the laying hens in the country, roughly 70 percent of the turkey population.
WERTHEIMER: Now, it sounds frightening. Should we be eating eggs? Should we worry about eating chicken?
VILSACK: There's no health issue involved here. There's no capacity and no risk of transmission from birds to humans. The chickens that are impacted are essentially killed. The eggs that were laid by the chickens are being destroyed. So this is really about animal health. It's about the producers who are going to be devastated as a result of the loss of their livelihood for an extended period of time.
WERTHEIMER: I assume that with all of these animals being destroyed and eggs being destroyed and whatnot there are going to be shortages. And where there are shortages, there are rising prices. How is it going to affect ordinary consumers?
VILSACK: The reality is that there may be a surplus of certain parts of chicken because our export markets have been impacted and affected by this. Roughly 20 percent of chicken exports are now basically banned based on decisions made by countries either to ban all poultry exports from the U.S. or exports from specific states that have been impacted by all of this. But on the egg side, you are liable to see, over time, increased costs for a dozen eggs and increased costs for goods that basically use liquid eggs in the development or processing of foods.
WERTHEIMER: I wonder if you think that ultimately the only thing that will stop this sort of disease sweeping across an entire industry is to change the nature of the industry - the, perhaps, smaller barns organizing the production of chickens and eggs in a different way?
VILSACK: Well, I'm not certain about that because this has impacted and effected backyard operations as well because of the nature of the virus and how it's initially presented into an area through geese and ducks that are wild. There is not much you can do about that. So I don't think it's necessarily getting away from the way in which chickens or eggs are produced so much as it is making sure that whatever system you use, that you're very conscious about the bio-security aspects of it. What that means is taking a look at facilities and making sure that there's no way in which an isolated bird might be able to enter a facility and basically spread the virus, to make sure that employees that are working in these facilities understand the importance of showering, making sure that the water that is used to water the birds doesn't come from a contaminated pond, for example. All of these steps and more have to be taken very seriously. And we're also looking at a vaccine. But it isn't necessarily 100 percent effective.
WERTHEIMER: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, thank you very much for spending the time with us, sir.
VILSACK: You bet. Thank you.
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