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Bird Flu Livestock
Rodrigo Abd/AP

Mistrust Between Farmers and the Government Is Jeopardizing Bird Flu Response

Dairy farmers, increasingly polarized following the COVID-19 pandemic and worried about economic damages, are hiding likely bird flu cases in cows from the feds.

Dairy farmers are hiding likely bird flu cases from government officials, coping with the virus’s symptoms in their herds while avoiding testing, one dairy industry representative told NOTUS.

Already distrustful of government, worried about economic and reputational damage and increasingly skeptical of public health officials following the COVID-19 pandemic, many farmers see no reason to test their cattle or engage with federal officials, Rick Naerebout, the CEO of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, said.

“Nationwide, the vast majority of cases are not reported,” Naerebout said. “Dairymen understand they have it based on the symptoms, but they don’t get a confirmation. They’re just managing through the disease.”

Cattle have tested positive in 42 herds as of May 10, but the actual number of affected herds is unknown. The USDA now requires a negative test for cattle to move across state lines, but no federal agency can mandate testing on the farms or go onto the farms without permission from the owners. Government requests to test farmers’ cows have mostly been ignored.

“You have to understand how they approach the world. They take on so much risk every day with what they do in their operation,” Naerebout said. “They are very reluctant on this issue or any other issue to have the government involved.”

Naerebout is in regular conversation with farmers whose cows are exhibiting symptoms across the state, and those farmers are choosing not to test their cows because a positive test would alert regulators, he said.

More than a dozen farmers and industry groups did not respond to NOTUS’ phone calls. The mistrust, stemming from a desire to protect business and a fiercely independent culture, has become increasingly partisan in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

One raw milk dairy farmer in Texas told NOTUS they had never heard of the bird flu. “You must be listening to CNN or something. Fake news,” they said.

Entrance to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.
The COVID-19 pandemic lowered trust in public health agencies in rural areas that skew heavily Republican. David Goldman/AP

Dairy farmers’ skepticism has weakened the Biden administration’s ability to successfully track the spread of the bird flu, a limitation that could make it more difficult to quickly catch if the virus mutates or if the risk of a pandemic increases. While pasteurized milk is safe to drink and the risk of human-to-human transmission of the virus remains very low, public health officials are still worried about the unexpected spread of bird flu in dairy cattle, and some view it as a messy dress rehearsal for tracking a highly pathogenic virus that could move from animals to humans.

“Scientists and government officials critically need this data, and it’s important for broader public health. But all of those reasons may be less compelling to them now than they were four years ago when you’re talking about folks who’ve lost faith in those goals or institutions,” said Ann Linder, a researcher at Harvard’s animal law and policy program who has interviewed farmers and officials about disease tracking.

Dairy farmers are avoiding confirmation tests for cattle they suspect are sick because a positive test would alert the USDA. Once a case is confirmed, farms must enter a quarantine. Farmers are not sure what kind of reputational or economic hit they could take, how involved state and federal officials will be and how the quarantine will end, according to Jamie Jonker, the chief science officer at the National Milk Producers Federation, which has encouraged farmers to cooperate with the federal government.

The Biden administration knows this is a problem.

“Producers obviously look at this circumstance and they see this as an animal health issue — an animal health issue that, for most cows, basically resolves itself over 7 to 10 days,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told NOTUS during a press call Friday. “So they may not fully appreciate and understand the approach that public health officials need to take.”

Tom Frieden, the former director of the CDC during the Obama administration and now the president and CEO of the nonprofit advocacy group Resolve to Save Lives, said he’s deeply concerned by the partisan nature of mistrust in public health agencies. The COVID-19 pandemic drove skepticism and lowered trust in rural areas that skew heavily Republican, a reality that’s causing problems now, he said.

Addressing this mistrust will require prioritizing the needs of the farmers, who remain unhappy with the USDA’s and CDC’s approach even after they announced some programs designed to incentivize farmers to participate in testing, experts told NOTUS.

“You need to listen,” Frieden said. “How much is milk production down? What are the economic risks to farmers, many of whom are on the edge economically?”

A current USDA veterinarian who was not authorized to speak on the record told NOTUS that they’re frustrated with the way public health officials are not thinking about the interests of farmers. “We have to have continuity of business,” she said.

Building trust requires financial incentives. In the poultry industry, livestock producers report cases of bird flu because they are compensated for each sick bird that has to be killed, but they are only paid if they report the cases before the birds die of the flu.

Raw Milk
Pasteurized milk is safe to drink and the risk of human-to-human transmission of the virus remains very low. JoNel Aleccia/AP

Cows infected with the virus lose milk productivity, creating financial strain for small-margin businesses that have struggled with particularly low milk prices over the last few years. The USDA announced last Friday that it plans to compensate farmers for the milk they are losing, but farmers still do not have details for how that program might work. “I think you’re starting to see recognition of the financial impact to the dairy farm,” Jonker said.

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Anonymity also remains an issue. Unless government officials can find a way to ensure that farmers and farmworkers won’t risk public exposure in the event of a positive test, they are unlikely to want to participate in testing. Naerebout, from the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, advocated for allowing farmers to work with local veterinarians by giving them the ability to report cases anonymously on a county-by-county basis.

Currently, though, there’s no way for many farmers to feel like they can win. “I don’t know if there is a pathway forward to rebuilding trust around this issue,” Naerebout said.

Anna Kramer is a reporter at NOTUS.