Vermont farms on the watch for avian flu

VERMONT — There have been no positive test results for avian flu in Vermont cows, State Veterinarian Kristin Haas assured members of the House Agriculture committee earlier this month.

The good news seemed slightly tempered by the admission, immediately following, that the state had not actually tested for it in any animals yet.

H5N1, or highly pathogenic avian influenza, is a virus deadly to domestic poultry that can wipe out entire flocks in just days. In late March, the federal government began investigating its spread in dairy cows. So far, nine states have confirmed outbreaks in cattle herds, the closest ones to Vermont being Ohio, Michigan and North Carolina.

That no Vermont cows had been tested for the avian flu really was a good thing, Haas said, because it meant that there had been no reports of sick animals. She commended the state’s veterinarians, farmers, livestock dealers and auction markets for their engagement.

“We have an industry that is working very, very hard to be compliant and to do the right thing,” she said.

H5N1’s major impact to Vermont’s dairy industry has so far come in the form of the April 24 USDA federal order — with no expiration date — that imposes restrictions on moving lactating dairy cattle across state lines. Many farmers in the state send their cows to slaughterhouses in Pennsylvania.

The order does allow individual states with no known cases of avian flu to decide on appropriate, efficient movement of cattle between one other. Haas said that the New England region this month to do just that, and alleviate “the biggest pinch points for us here in Vermont.”

For a brief moment the conversation veered into more feline territory when Rep. John O’Brien, D-Tunbridge, appeared to ask whether bobcats would also be subject to the federal order.

After a flutter of general confusion, he clarified that he had said “bobby calves,” a term for the male calves born to the milking herd, who are generally shipped off to the abattoir. Haas said that since bobby calves are not lactating animals they get a pass from the feds.

There is one confirmed case of cattle infecting a human with H5N1 — a Texas dairy worker who milked sick cows — but Haas said there was little reason for Vermonters to worry about contagion.

“There is nothing about this virus that has changed either the risk profile for any of our food products or has changed the potential human health impact…which has been considered to be low,” she said.

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