Senators on Friday criticized the Agriculture Department's planning for deadly bird flu, saying the voluntary nature of its testing program threatens the U.S. poultry industry.

At issue is a federal audit that found the government lacks a comprehensive plan for testing and monitoring bird flu in commercial poultry. The department says it will have a plan in place by October.

"It is surprising that USDA does not have a program that monitors and collects data on what testing is taking place,"the senators wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.

"We are deeply concerned that the agency has waited until this year to begin to develop a comprehensive surveillance plan for avian influenza, which will not be complete until October,"wrote the group, which includes Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

The group includes four other Democrats _ Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada, Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer of New York _ and one Republican, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa.

The senators said the department is relying too heavily on states and that many states don't have enough personnel to help coordinate.

"Consequently, some states are adequately prepared, while others are not prepared and do not even have avian influenza response plans,"the senators wrote.

A department spokesman said Friday that officials are working to fix the problems raised in the audit, done by the department'inspector general, and that auditors approve of those efforts.

"This has been a key priority for the department,"spokesman Ed Loyd said."This is not something that's just theoretical to the department. We have experience in dealing with previous high-path outbreaks."

Bird flu is common in U.S. poultry flocks, but the virulent Asian strain that has killed at least 133 people has not been found in this country. Most of the human cases have been linked to infected birds, but scientists worry the virus could mutate, become highly contagious and then easily spread among people.

The audit happened before the department received $91 million from Congress to help prepare for bird flu, Loyd said. The testing plan is separate from a multi-agency response plan released in March, he said.

On the Net:

Agriculture Department:http://www.usda.gove

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.