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.
"We have plenty of experience in dealing with infections here," he said. "The real problem is in poor Third World countries, where people hide their infected chickens because they are their livelihood."
State officials in affected states say they inspect the markets monthly for avian flu and require workers and vehicles to be cleaned after, and sometimes before, visiting a market. Once a week, the markets are supposed to be sanitized.
When flu is detected in the lab, about three or four weeks after the swabs are taken from chickens, cages and floors, the markets must close for a day or two of cleaning. The four New Jersey markets infected with the flu are being allowed to sell their birds before closing because the meat is not considered dangerous to eat, New Jersey officials said yesterday.
Regardless, they said, chicken and other meat should be thoroughly cooked to kill all food-borne illnesses.
The live bird markets were more pervasive in the United States before World War II, when mass processing wasn't so common. But the practice has endured in urban markets with large immigrant populations.
The markets are generally found in areas where concentrations of Asians, Middle Easterners and South Americans have settled. Maryland reports no such markets. Philadelphia has two, New Jersey has about 30 and New York has more than 80 and adds a few each year as the immigrant population grows there. Industry members say there are probably some "underground" markets that operate unreported.
"They think it's healthy," Carol J. Cardona, an extension poultry veterinarian at the University of California, Davis, said about the markets' customers. "They come from countries that don't have food inspection services or someone they trust. So, they do it themselves. A lot of cultures do this."
The customers at Pete's in Philadelphia are Asian, Italian, African and South American, and want their birds prepared differently, Sparta said. For those who want to keep the head, Sparta will pierce the neck instead of slicing all the way through.
On a recent day, two Chinese women bought three chickens for $19.90. The birds typically weigh between 4 1/2 pounds and 5 1/2 pounds.
The women covered their noses with their hands as they chose from the hundreds of birds in cages stacked four high and lining the walls of the narrow shop.
"A friend said here the chicken is good, so I come," said Vivian Ching, 40, who recently emigrated from China.
Sparta's two workers say some days 20 or more people crowd inside and pick out hens for roasting or pigeons for soup.
Maribel Abiles, a Puerto Rican woman who came to Pete's for guinea hens for her mother, ventured inside just long enough to get the attention of a worker. The pungent odor, squawking of birds and screaming of a large white rabbit about to meet the business end of a cleaver sent her quickly back outside.
There, she picked from the cages on the sidewalk. There were black and white roosters, ducks in a range of colors and pigeons in gray. The guinea hens were black speckled with white.
"My mother is 78 and wanted a guinea," Abiles said. "She's never been here but heard about it. She used to grow her own in Puerto Rico - everyone did. I don't care how good it is, I'm never coming back."
Some other customers spoke no English. They would point to a bird or Sparta would jump in with a word or two of Spanish he has pick up over the years.
"Pollo? Grande?" he said, motioning to a large chicken.
Sparta, who also owns Philly's other live market a few blocks away, avoids chicken himself. He once became sick eating it when he was young. But he heard that his birds taste fresher than grocery store-bought.
Once an unemployed factory worker, he began driving a chicken delivery truck in Lancaster County, Pa., in the 1990s and met the former owner of the Philly market. Sparta bought the business when the owner retired in 1996.
It's a good enough living, said Sparta, his arms laced by long, thin scars from birds that have fought back with claws and beaks. But the recent flu epidemic does have him concerned, he said.
Sparta said he never lets chicken brokers into his shop. He drives to Lancaster County on Wednesdays to pick up the birds himself. Although it doesn't seem to help the smell, he disinfects the cages once a week after the birds sell out and mops up blood, feathers and waste daily. He washes his truck between deliveries.
He has been shut down once, several years ago when an outbreak on Pennsylvania farms led state officials to ban live chicken sales.
"It costs a lot for soap and bleach," he said. "I wash everything in bleach - the coops, the floors, even the walls - although it doesn't look like it five minutes after I do it. I hope [the flu] stays where it is and doesn't come here. This is my living."