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Editorial: The semi-annual flu


It must be that time of year — we’re sick of bird flu as the geese take roost. Yet another Sioux County dairy barn has been infected. A turkey flock in Cherokee County was wiped out. Another near Storm Lake. Workers in dairy barns have come down with it. Labs show virus fragments in pasteurized milk and in meat from infected cows — government authorities insist that the food is safe, that commercial pasteurization is different than lab conditions and more stringent, and that it is not believed that any meat has entered the human food chain.

It made us grill a lovely sirloin on Sunday to medium rather than medium-rare, the way it was intended. After supper, we decided we would rather endure Mad Cow disease than an overdone steak. We had a glass of milk to wash it down. True story from a red-meat and milk addict. The loose approach to pandemic disease gives us second thoughts among us reared to believe that the USDA food inspectors were one step above the FBI G-men. They ensure consumer confidence on the front line of the dairy and the kill floor. As we have watched the protective system erode over the years, it fosters seeds of skepticism about food safety. This is a most serious business.

Which is why voluntary this and voluntary that won’t cut it in the eyes of the consumer.

Voluntary milk tank inspection. Voluntary herd testing. We understand that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack of Iowa is sympathetic to the meat and dairy industry. It’s time for him to step it up and take on the issue four-square. Not enough research into how the virus spreads from waterfowl to domestic confined flocks to dairy to humans. We don’t know enough about how it might mutate. This is from world-class epidemic experts in Minnesota, a world dairy and poultry center who have long said we are not preparing for mutating disease threats. Not enough protection for undocumented immigrants working in dairy barns, echoes of the Covid-19 tragedy.

This is of vital and urgent concern to Buena Vista County. Storm Lake depends on keeping livestock viruses at bay. We depend on the USDA to keep consumer confidence in food safety high. You do not do that by turning over inspection to the producer — we surely know ourselves that when your back is against the wall you don’t always make the right decision. Often a friendly government inspector who is not there to lock you up can protect you from yourself.

If you think we are crying wolf, we refer again to the Covid pandemic from which we continue to recover. The economic devastation of destroying millions of laying hens and turkeys has been felt deeply here. Yet, the farm bill is more than a year overdue and Congress dithers. Research funding is frozen. Our congressman could do something but doesn’t. He is talking about immigrants invading Iowa, the ones potentially picking up the virus working in the shadows of Sioux County.

Randy Feenstra isn’t doing enough to protect us. Tom Vilsack isn’t. Farmers depend on consumer confidence in a safe and nutritious food supply. That confidence erodes with every report of another human infection, or tiny traces showing up in the milk while producers are asked politely if they would voluntarily test tanks ready for the truck. We should be marshaling resources through the National Animal Disease Center in Ames. We should test milk and meat going out the door. Dairy heifers should not be ground into hamburger without pre-testing. (This could grow a new industry out of Ames, if we understood our interests and our capacity.)

We could control this disease without incineration if we tried. We’re not trying hard enough. We have complained since 2015 that we are not taking livestock disease seriously enough. If African swine flu hits Iowa there will be untold economic harm and dislocation. We vaccinate based on industry preference, an industry that is not controlled in Iowa. We are being exposed at the front lines of a disease epidemic while thinking that the government and the corporation in Delaware or wherever will protect us from our basic enterprise, agriculture and food production. They are not protecting us. Not well enough.

Editorial, Art Cullen


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