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First line of defense against flu outbreak receives hefty upgrade

WILLMAR -- For 40 years the Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory in Willmar has been quietly monitoring the state's turkeys, chickens and commercially raised upland game birds for diseases that could, if left unchecked, seriously impact the poultry industry and possibly contribute to a worldwide influenza pandemic.

Dr. Dale Lauer, veterinarian and director of the lab, suspects not many residents realize the heavy responsibility that is handled every day at the lab.

"This lab is our first line of defense for an influenza outbreak," Lauer said. "As the work to prepare for another potential pandemic continues, we need to be prepared."

That lab is now better prepared.

A three-month interior renovation of the lab was completed last week. The project was funded in part by a $300,000 state allocation.

An open house and tours will be held from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.

The renovation of the 10-year-old building included an interior facelift that incorporates existing and new technology and created professional work stations for the lab technicians.

Previously, some technicians worked in modified closets, computers and testing equipment competed for space and one piece of testing equipment was so loud people couldn't hear each other talk.

By creatively moving some interior walls and making sacrifices in storage areas, the lab is now "more worker-friendly," said Stacy Pollock, lab manager.

A special cabinet now muffles the loud equipment, the freezer -- which goes to minus 70 degrees Celsius and is used to store serums and test plates with historical significance -- is in a secure location and a new on-site computer server lets customers check immediate test results online.

"It's not perfect, but it's much better than it was," said Lauer, who was maneuvering around crews Monday as they delivered the final pieces of furniture and equipment.

Directors from the lab's cooperative partners, the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, as well as the Commissioner of Agriculture and other state officials will be among the dignitaries at Wednesday's event.

But Lauer said the open house will also give the public a one-time opportunity to see the lab and learn about the type of testing that's done and why it's important.

The diligence of poultry producers to voluntarily provide test samples, and the lab's ability to monitor those flocks and test results, has increased Lauer's confidence that the highly pathogenic avian influenza is not here, and if it ever emerges it will be quickly discovered.

Lauer doesn't mind that the lab keeps a low-profile, but said perhaps it should "enjoy better visibility."

The facility is the only poultry testing lab in Minnesota.

The lab does not provide diagnostic services for operators who may have ill birds, but provides management of surveillance programs, tracks disease trends and develops disease prevention and food safety strategies, according to Lauer.

"The public doesn't necessarily need to know every detail," said Lauer, but said local residents may be very interested in the service that's provided to Minnesota's poultry industry from the Willmar office.

"I am very proud of this place," he said.

Lauer said people in Kandiyohi County may think that the primary purpose of the testing lab is to monitor turkeys from local companies such as Jennie-O Turkey Store.

He said the lab tests samples for all commercial poultry operations in Minnesota, as well as backyard poultry flocks and people who raise and release game birds such as pheasants. Besides being a top turkey producer, Minnesota also ranks third for commercial production of upland game birds.

Evidence that the value of the lab is recognized throughout the state is seen in the list of people being recognized on Wednesday.

Besides Rep. Al Juhnke, who voted for the state funding in 2005, the president of the St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce is also on the list.

Because of the economic importance of poultry in Stearns County, where Golden Plump is located, the St. Cloud Chamber took on state funding legislation as a key initiative to support. Without their support, Lauer said the project may not have happened.