U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack.

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack.

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack is urging Iowa landfill operators to bury many of the birds that have been killed in poultry barns where avian flu has been detected.

“It’s important that we get that done fairly soon and we need landfills to be reasonable in terms of the charges they’re assessing and willing to take these birds,” Vilsack said today during an interview with Radio Iowa. “That will help limit future exposures.”

Avian flu has been confirmed or suspected at more than 50 poultry operations in Iowa, impacting more than 20 million turkeys and chickens. Iowa is the nation’s largest egg producing state and 40 percent of the laying hens in Iowa have been hit by the flu. Incinerators have been deployed to many farms to burn the dead birds, but Vilsack said that’s a time-consuming process and burial of the birds’ carcasses is a better answer.

“The concern right now is that these birds have no place to go,” Vilsack said. “…Because of the nature of these birds and the number of them, the most and easiest and best way and proper way to dispose of them is in a landfill.”

According to Vilsack, there are no water quality concerns if the birds are properly buried.

“We’ve provided that advice and counsel to landfills and again we’ll be working with the state to try to reassure people that there’s not a risk here,” Vilsack said. “But at some point in time we’ve basically got to get rid of these birds because otherwise we’re going to begin to have some other issues in terms of odor and flies and things of that nature that people are obviously not going to want to deal with.”

Vilsack and Iowa Governor Terry Branstad are scheduled to speak with one another about this issue early this afternoon. Vilsack told Radio Iowa that only one Iowa landfill has expressed an interest in accepting dead birds, but he said the landfill operators are proposing charges “several times more” than normal landfill fees.

“This is a tough situation and we all kind of have to pitch in and hopefully no one’s going to take advantage of the situation,” Vilsack said. “We obviously want to be fair and reasonable about this.”

Avian flu has hit poultry operations in 15 states, but Iowa has been hardest hit.

“Fortunately we’re beginning to see a plateauing, at least in the state of Iowa, in terms of the number of incidences, which is good,” Vilsack said. “Hopefully we’ll see, as we have in Minnesota, a downward trend here fairly soon.”

The USDA is offering financial assistance to poultry producers to cover the “fair market value” of the birds that are killed and cover the “reasonable costs” of sanitizing facilities where bird flu has been found.