Measures to control the worst bird flu outbreak in U.S. history are not being enforced at several farms at its epicenter in northwestern Iowa, potentially increasing the risks that the disease could spread further, spot checks by Reuters show.

In visits to six affected sites in Iowa last week, a Reuters reporter found procedures at three in Sioux County did not comply with USDA or state protocols for restricting access to infected sites, providing protective gear to workers and cleaning the wheels of vehicles leaving the sites.

Burke Healey, the USDA's national incident commander coordinating response to the bird flu, said he was concerned about the findings of lax biosecurity in Iowa after hearing about them from Reuters. Shortfalls in biosecurity can violate agreements signed by farm owners, he said. "If they're allowing you to drive in and out of that property unrestricted, then that's going against what we've requested of them and what they've agreed to do for us," Healey said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and state officials have established quarantine zones and mandated strict biosecurity procedures at and around farms in Iowa and other affected states. Steps include controlling access and minimizing traffic at infected farms; requiring protective clothing for workers; killing all poultry and securely disposing of carcasses, litter, feed and any other appropriate materials, including manure; and cleaning and disinfecting the affected premises, equipment and vehicles.

The USDA is meeting with industry trade groups in Washington Thursday, and with state and poultry groups on Friday in Des Moines, the state capital, to talk about improving biosecurity on affected farm sites, according to people familiar with the situation.

Infected farms must create a "clean and disinfect line," and all vehicles must be sanitized as they enter and leave the property, according to Iowa state agriculture officials. Any farmer who wants to move poultry or poultry products off an infected site must get a permit from the state.

In Iowa, the USDA has agreed to enforce compliance with the "clean and disinfect" line. "USDA has been overseeing operations on the affected sites and they have agreed to oversee the enforcement of that line," said a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

In compliance with USDA guidance on restricted access, Reuters was not permitted access to two sites owned by Daybreak Foods near Eagle Grove, or to a site near Harris, Iowa, run by Sunrise Farms, an affiliate of Sonstegard Foods Company. Daybreak Foods did not respond to a request for comment. Sonstegard declined to comment.     

However, at a Center Fresh Group facility near Sioux Center, which housed about 4.9 million hens, a worker cleaning the tires of vehicles exiting the property waved a reporter's car in to the site without inspection. On a public road running alongside the facility, passenger cars drove by unstaffed barricades at a site meant to control access, one of which lay on the ground. Center Fresh, based in Sioux Center, is one of the largest U.S. egg producers.

At another Center Fresh facility near the town of Ireton, workers were observed dumping hen carcasses from a rectangular blue gas chamber into a front-end loader. The workers wore short sleeves and hospital masks, not the protective suits and air-purifying respirators recommended in a USDA directive.

At that same farm, a worker who asked the Reuters reporter to leave did not disinfect the visitor's shoes, which had come in contact with the farm's feather-covered grounds.

Center Fresh has at times modified standard USDA protocols on access and protective gear to speed up culling of flocks, while still ensuring safety on the farms and in the community, Chief Operating Officer J.T. Dean said in a statement to Reuters. "This has been a process that is evolving every day, and that work is ongoing as we learn more about our response," he said.

At an infected farm owned by Fedders Poultry near Orange City, the tires on the reporter’s car were not disinfected when he left.

"I am not involved," said Mark Fedders, the farm owner. He said it is up to government officials regulate traffic on and off the farm, disinfect vehicles, protect the perimeter and store dead birds. "I personally am not the one in charge of security."

At the Fedders farm, a truck driver wearing a Clean Harbors baseball cap also left the site without having his wheels cleaned. Clean Harbors Inc, an environmental services company based in Norwell, Massachusetts, has a contract with the USDA to help clean infected farms in Iowa and Minnesota.   

Clean Harbors said it is charged with removing poultry from infected barns, disposing of carcasses and decontaminating infected facilities. Spokesman Eric Kraus said he was not there to see the truck driver at the Fedders farm, but that the company cleans and sanitizes all of its vehicles on infected farm sites and provides necessary biosecurity equipment to its staff.  

The highly infectious bird flu virus has not crossed over to humans in the United States, as it did in Asia following a 2003 outbreak, but transmission to humans is possible, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Concerns about the USDA's effectiveness in leading efforts to contain the outbreak have been raised in Congress, by the states and in the poultry industry.

"The reality of this situation requires us to engage in an all-hands-on-deck approach, developing a strategy in which we put all of the resources we have at our disposal together with all resources possible from states and producers to best stop the spread of this disease," said USDA spokesman Brian Mabry.

In Iowa, 60 farms have been infected so far by bird flu, according to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. It is not known if conditions like those observed by Reuters exist at other infected Iowa farms, or those in 15 other states with commercial or backyard flocks affected by bird flu.

CONTROL MEASURES VITAL

Iowa, the nation’s largest egg producer, has suffered the largest bird-flu losses of any state, 25.5 million birds out of more than 38 million dead birds nationwide, according to the USDA. Officials in Iowa, like those in other states, are working with USDA to contain the outbreak.

As soon as a USDA lab confirms a bird flu case, Iowa officials move to quarantine the affected farm, establishing an “infected zone” with a minimum radius of 10 kilometers, or 6.2 miles.

The USDA, meanwhile, enters into a “flock plan” agreement with responsible parties, which typically include the state, the farmer, or the company that owns the birds, if the farmer is a contract grower. According to a seven-page agreement template reviewed by Reuters, such agreements lay out responsibility for killing and disposing of the birds, cleaning and disinfecting the site, and protective equipment for workers. . The workers’ employer is responsible for providing the gear and making sure it is worn – whether that employer is the farmer, the state or USDA.

Reuters has not seen the individual agreements for any of the infected Iowa farm sites it has visited.