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The federal government has paid Minnesota egg and poultry producers more than $135 million to offset losses caused by the worst avian influenza outbreak in U.S. history.

The indemnity payments are meant to compensate for the birds that had to be culled after the virus was detected in flocks. Since 2022, Minnesota has lost 6.3 million birds, mostly commercial turkeys, to bird flu.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, created to protect the food supply and rural livelihoods, uses the indemnity program to essentially insure against calamity. USDA also pays for depopulation, disposal, contaminated materials and some other costs incurred as a result of outbreaks.

Nationwide, the agency has paid poultry farmers and companies at least $660 million in bird flu indemnity payments since the outbreak began in 2022, according to a federal contracts database. More than 79 million birds have died.

A full accounting of the economic impact from the ongoing bird flu outbreak is not yet available. The federal government spent nearly $1 billion nationally responding to the last large-scale outbreak in 2015, according to the USDA, which reported an additional $1.3 billion in lost export revenue.

The virus, officially known as highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI, does not pose a threat to food safety, health officials say.

Ashley Kohls, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, said farmers would much rather raise healthy birds than receive government checks. But current USDA policy dictates their approach to disease mitigation.

"Minnesota's turkey farmers do everything they can to protect their birds," Kohls said in an email. "As with any other instance in which the government takes or orders the destruction of an individual's property, the government reimburses the owner for the losses."

Federal regulations require poultry operations to cull their flocks when avian influenza is detected. The indemnity payments are meant "to encourage prompt reporting of certain high-consequence livestock and poultry diseases and to incentivize private biosecurity investment, not to secure or protect producers from all consequences of disease," according to the USDA.

More than 350 Minnesota farmers have relied on the indemnity program as they've faced catastrophic losses in their flocks. A majority of the relief — $79 million — was paid to Jennie-O Turkey Store producers across 19 Minnesota counties. Jennie-O, a subsidiary of Hormel Foods, is the second-largest turkey company in the country.

Other Minnesota companies to receive more than $1 million in payments include turkey breeder Select Genetics; Howard Lake-based egg operation Forsman Farms; Sparboe, a Litchfield-based egg producer; and Michael Foods, a Hopkins-based egg processor and subsidiary of Post Holdings.

The payments don't include anticipated lost income or losses due to business interruptions and are based on the market value of the birds that had to be killed, according to the USDA. Michael Foods said it used payments to repopulate affected farms.

"Indemnity payments do not make farmers whole, rather it prevents them from going out of business during a foreign animal disease event," Kohls said.

In May 2022, as bird deaths mounted, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the second-highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate agriculture committee, sent a letter with Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley calling on Congress to make funding the USDA avian health program a "high priority."

"The outbreak of avian influenza was devastating to Minnesota's poultry growers," Klobuchar said in a statement Monday.

Bird flu is typically spread by migratory waterfowl like geese and ducks that visit or leave droppings on poultry farms. Minnesota, the nation's leading turkey producer, is in a major migratory corridor.

Iowa, a major egg producer, has also been hit hard by the outbreak and leads the nation in bird flu deaths with 18.8 million. Producers in the state have received at least $79 million in indemnity payments, according to federal data.

Rembrandt Enterprises received more than $27 million in federal indemnity payments for bird flu losses at its egg facilities in Iowa. The company is owned by Minnesota billionaire and Star Tribune owner Glen Taylor.