U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and former governor of Georgia Sonny Perdue returned to Athens on Friday for the groundbreaking ceremony of the upcoming renovation of the Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory, the Agricultural Research Service’s Athens-based research facility.

The replacement of the Southeast Poultry Research Lab has been over a decade in the making.

According to David Swayne, laboratory director of the SEPRL, this new laboratory will be the largest poultry research facility in the United States.

Most of the SEPRL’s current facilities in Athens were completed in 1963, said Swayne, and have long been in need of an upgrade.

The location’s original purpose was to “develop research solutions...for Complex Respiratory Disease involving microplasma in broiler chickens which were costing our farmers millions of dollars,” in the mid-twentieth century, said U.S. Representative Sanford Bishop Jr. from Georgia’s second district, who was also in attendance.

The new facility will expand the laboratory’s capabilities of researching and responding to avian influenza outbreaks.

In recent years, the Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory has created rapid diagnostic tests for pathogenic avian influenza, also known as Bird flu, and responded with research to all three outbreaks within the United States, Swayne said.

Additionally, the Athens facility has assisted countries with forming vaccines for the eradication of poultry-related diseases such as avian influenza and Newcastle disease.

Perdue said the research conducted at the laboratory has placed the United States at the “forefront of global commerce” in the poultry industry, and that this new facility could also benefit the nation’s economy and that of the state of Georgia, which has been called the, “Poultry Capital of the World".

“For over 55 years, on this hill and this campus around you, taxpayers and the world has gotten their money’s worth,” Perdue said. “[Foreign] producers can’t compete because the integrated research whether it be in the Department of Agriculture, poultry science, veterinary medicine, or the Agricultural Research Service that sits here which make our producers the best, most efficient, and most productive in the world.”

Perdue, an alumnus of the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, also took some time while in Athens to visit his alma mater, touring various facilities and speaking with students and faculty.

In 2016, the U.S. poultry industry produced 54 billion pounds of chickens and over seven billion pounds of turkey, said Mike Giles, president of Georgia Poultry Association.

In addition, he said the broiler, turkey, and egg industry combined have an annual economic impact of $433 billion and affect around 1.6 million jobs in the United States.

The new Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory is scheduled to be completed by 2022.

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