An Edina Democrat has apologized after he donned a white lab coat on the House floor and claimed that eating turkey could put people at risk for bird flu.
"I apologize for making light of this serious issue and I support immediate passage of legislation that will adequately fund a response to the avian flu crisis," said Rep. Ron Erhardt said.
The Democrats' comments drew a sharp rebuke from fellow lawmakers concerned he was making light of the bird flu crisis, which has affected more than 5 million birds in the state. His comments came following a free turkey burger lunch in front of the Minnesota Capitol attended by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and legislators to show support for the state's turkey farmers.
"This is going to come a little late for some of you because you've already been to lunch," Erhardt began.
He then said he had a turkey dinner on Saturday and began to exhibit signs of the flu afterwards.
"I began to think about this and I thought, 'Well there must be some way even after you have ingested the possible poison that we might help you out,'" Erhardt said.
On his desk was a jar labeled "bird flu vaccine" that appeared to have candy in it. There was also what appeared to be a can of air freshener labeled "bird flu vaccine."
Erhardt's floor speech was interrupted by Austin DFL Rep. Jeanne Poppe who raised a point of order.
"It appears as though this is going to maybe be a joke at some point, but the turkey farmers in our state are suffering a very serious crisis," Poppe said.
She then added, "I am confused by what Rep. Erhardt is trying to do and so I need to respond and ask for you to tell him to stop."
Several other lawmakers also voiced concern saying Erhardt's comments were not funny. Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said he would like the Minnesota Department of Health to perform a nasal swab on Erhardt to prove that his concerns about getting bird flu from eating turkey are false.
Hamilton added, "It's not funny at all."
The House adjourned its floor session over Erhardt's objections that he was not allowed to finish. In an interview afterwards, Erhardt was asked if he was trying to make a joke.
"It is a joke but it isn't a joke either because it's a serious matter we have going on in rural Minnesota," he said.
Erhardt said he has serious concerns that eating turkey — especially turkey that's not fully cooked — could give people bird flu. When it comes to encouraging people to eat turkey burgers at this time he said, "I don't know if that's a good idea."
In his statement apologizing, Erhardt said he had a chance to meet with an official from the Minnesota Department of Health "to better understand the issue" and he is confident that turkey is safe to eat. The Minnesota Department of Health has said that there is no evident that people can get bird flu from eating turkey.
During the interview with Erhardt, other lawmakers jumped in and said that Erhardt's concerns are misguided. Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, said it's important people know it's safe to eat turkey.
"The Department of Health has not expressed any concern, and I think the point of having burgers out there today was to show the public that there is no reason for concern," Liebling said.
She added, "I, for one, am going to continue to buy turkey products."
To watch Erhardt's comments on the floor, go here.