Lawmaker's bird flu routine lays an egg in Minnesota House

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Rep. Ron Erhardt in lab coat
Dressed in a white lab coat and stethoscope, Edina Rep. Ron Erhardt told the House he was concerned avian influenza may threaten humans. He also held a bottle and spray can that were labeled "bird flu vaccine," Tuesday, May 5, 2015.
Screengrab from Minnesota House video

Updated 4:35 p.m. | Posted 3:48 p.m.

While many state lawmakers Tuesday took part in a cookout to demonstrate that turkey products are safe despite an avian influenza outbreak, one DFL lawmaker tried to joke about it.

His western and southern Minnesota colleagues did not see the humor.

Dressed in a white lab coat and stethoscope, Edina Rep. Ron Erhardt told the House he was concerned avian influenza may threaten humans. He also held a bottle and spray can that were labeled "bird flu vaccine."

He related a story of feeling poorly over the weekend after eating turkey and speculated on whether the flu could transfer to humans, saying, "I'm worried that we're not paying strict enough attention that there is a possibility of transfer."

He indicated reluctance to take part in the lunchtime offer of free turkey burgers but added: "After I found out that this was a bipartisan offer and not just an offer to the DFL, I felt a little better about it — the burgers, I mean."

Later, in a statement sent out by the DFL Caucus, Erhardt apologized "for making light of this serious issue" and said he supported "immediate passage of legislation that will adequately fund a response to the avian flu crisis."

Minnesota produces more turkey than any other state. Throughout the outbreak, officials have emphasized that the food system is safe. So far, no human cases have been reported in the United States or elsewhere, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Although the risk of transmission to humans is low, workers in the state who have contact with the infected flocks will be monitored for the illness.

Erhardt, who referred to turkey as "possible poison" at one point in his House remarks, said the lab coat was an attempt at being light-hearted. Some lawmakers did not think it was funny.

Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said he was disappointed Erhardt would make light of a crisis that's having a devastating impact on families. His region of Minnesota has been particularly hard hit.

Lawmakers should be educating Minnesotans that the food supply is safe, not making jokes on the House floor, he added.

DFLers were quick to rebuke Erhardt's antics. Throughout the last two years, Republicans repeatedly criticized Democrats for not addressing the problems facing rural Minnesota.

Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, said avian influenza is not a partisan issue.

"It appears as though this is going to be a joke at some point," she said of Erhardt's comments. "But the turkey farmers in our state are suffering a very serious crisis. It's not something that we need to be making light of."

Watch the exchange on the House floor

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