Pete Sparta

Pete Sparta, of Pete's Live Poultry in Philadelphia, says he bars chicken brokers and disinfects cages once a week. (Sun photo by Lloyd Fox / February 11, 2004)

PHILADELPHIA - In South Philadelphia, in between the gleaming new sports stadiums and the gritty Italian street market, is a small brick storefront where a 21-year-old in dirty rubber boots and a dirty smock has got a honey-colored hen by the feet.

It is squawking and flailing its head and wings as Brian Hahnly scoots into the back room and reaches for a small blade.

The bird's 12 weeks of life drain into a metal vat. Its feathers melt off in a 140-degree tank of swirling water. Its bald, pale flesh slides into a clear plastic bag, head pressed to wing. After about 10 minutes in the rear of Pete's Live Poultry on South Ninth St., the hen goes home for dinner.

It's places like this - most common in New York City but scattered in other urban areas - where hundreds of chickens, guinea hens, ducks, pigeons and rabbits sit in rows of feather- and feces-covered cages, waiting to become a meal. It's also places like this where avian influenza can grow into an economic nightmare.

Yesterday, authorities announced that a strain of bird flu was found at four live chicken markets in northern New Jersey, and Pennsylvania was testing a flock on a farm in Lancaster County - the latest bad news in a dire week for the U.S. poultry industry.

Avian flu found at two Delaware farms earlier led to the destruction of more than 85,000 birds and a ban on American poultry by 11 nations, mostly in Asia. Industry and political leaders are calling for quick containment and a new federal bird-tracking system.

"We sold $250 million worth of broiler parts to China and Hong Kong in 2003, and that's a lot to jeopardize because someone wants to sell a live bird in New York," said Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, the trade group for major U.S. growers and processors.

Industry and government experts say the live markets are largely run for and by immigrants, and are not nationally organized or licensed. Some businessmen, like Pete Sparta, owner of Pete's Live Poultry in Philadelphia for the past eight years, appear to go to great lengths to keep out avian flu, but that's not universal.

The live animal markets are regulated by the states, which have a hard time keeping the virus at bay. Avian flu is found every few months in one or more of New York City's 80 markets, and an outbreak is recorded every few years on small, independent farms or on large commercial farms nearby.

While the strain found in this country is a mild form of the virus and has not led to a human illness or death, it has had a heavy cost for the industry. Birds on commercial farms sold to companies such as Salisbury-based Perdue Farms Inc. need to be destroyed so they don't infect other flocks.

Further, if the U.S. strain is not contained, it could mutate into the dangerous form that has sickened and killed people in Asia. The mere threat led many countries to ban U.S. poultry, imperiling the export business that accounts for 20 percent of the U.S. industry.

Tracking system sought

The chicken lobby is seeking a strong federal system to track the chickens sold at live markets so when avian flu is detected, the entire chain of supply can be treated.

Lobb said state inspectors are underfunded and undermanned, and a federal system would "be an important step" in breaking the avian flu cycle between farm and market.

Maryland's U.S. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes sent a letter this week to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman pointing to the need for such a tracking system.

Live markets are suspected sources for avian flu because the virus spreads only through living birds, farm and wild.

The mild strain of the flu is not found in bird meat, and most of the animals recover from it in a short span of time. But birds sneeze and send the virus into the air for others to catch. More often, the virus is spread in feces, which is picked up off the floor and bird cages and spread around by human shoes and vehicles.

During weekly deliveries, workers and trucks carry the virus among markets and farms - keeping avian flu alive somewhere at all times.

Arnold Monto, a University of Michigan professor of epidemiology, said because the strain also lives in wild birds, it is nearly impossible to eradicate. But it's not hard to contain on a case-by-case basis.