By By Meredith Cohn and Jamie Smith Hopkins and Chris Guy
Feb 11, 2004 | 3:00 AM
A second flock of chickens infected with avian influenza was discovered yesterday in Delaware, surprising experts and greatly expanding the economic dangers from the outbreaks.
The infected chickens were found on a farm in Sussex County that supplies birds to a large commercial processor. It is located about five miles from the Kent County farm where the virus was first detected late last week.
State Department of Agriculture officials said the outbreaks did not appear to be linked, but both farms and about 75 others around them will be quarantined and tested for up to a month. Farms with high rates of poultry mortality on the three-state Delmarva peninsula will also face increased testing, agricultural officials said.
Eleven countries, mostly in Asia, have banned imports of Delaware or U.S. poultry products as a precaution. Delmarva accounts for about 6 percent of American poultry exports.
Officials said they believe they can contain the avian flu to the two counties where the virus was found through quarantines, testing and disinfecting of trucks and equipment.
But anxiety is still reigning among farmers who do not know when they will be able to send their birds for processing.
"The dinner table conversation for a farmer tonight is about fear of losing his living," said Michael T. Scuse, Delaware's agriculture secretary. "We have people who have everything they own at stake. We can't emphasize enough how serious this is. This is very, very serious. We have a multibillion-dollar industry at stake."
Sussex is the largest broiler-producing county in the nation.
Both outbreaks involve a strain of the virus that is not considered a threat to humans who live nearby or purchase meat in grocery stores.
But extensive precautions are being taken across Delaware. Some 73,800 birds were destroyed yesterday, and meetings of farmers, sales and auctions of farm equipment, and sales of live poultry were ordered stopped.
Officials advised farmers to close off their farms to outsiders to prevent further spread of the avian flu, which is most often transmitted from bird to bird through mud and manure, and which can be tracked on shoes or vehicles. Birds also can transmit the virus to other birds through the air.
Quick action in this case can prevent the flu from mutating from what is thought to be a relatively mild strain into a more dangerous form that could seriously sicken birds or humans, health officials said.
The United States has had many avian flu outbreaks over the past several years, but none has ever killed a human, unlike the strain in Asia that has recently caused illness and death among people there.
Still, the local farmers are feeling the pressure.
William Messick, 69, whose 180-acre Kent County farm is in sight of the first case of avian flu, was among those whose birds have been tested and found to be clean. He has about 100,000 chickens that were supposed to be sent out for slaughter at Allen Family Foods Inc. last night and this morning, but that has been delayed until Friday. He hasn't left his farm since he got the news Saturday, not wanting to risk his livelihood.
"The problem with this stuff is you don't know where somebody's been or where to go yourself," Messick said. "It could be a disaster."
Gary and Sharon Marvel, whose Maryland farm is about a half-mile from the Delaware line, worry about avian flu possibly spreading to their flock of 108,000 birds. They have barricaded their driveway with cones.
Animal and public health experts say the precautions might seem extreme but are appropriate in such a case.
Carol J. Cardona, an extension poultry veterinarian at the University of California, Davis, said destroying birds and burying or composting them is necessary to contain the outbreak, though the relatively mild form believed to be infecting Delaware birds is not harmful enough to kill many of them.
"Mutation is the watchword for this virus," she said. "Destroying a flock and banning trade seems like an overreaction to this virus when it doesn't even cause birds to get very sick, but [officials] just can't be too careful at this point. We would euthanize the birds to prevent a future problem."
In addition to Delaware's actions, neighboring states and major processors are taking precautions.
Sue du Pont, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said a Delmarva task force of government and industry officials has ordered testing for farms within six miles of either of the infected operations in Delaware and for any flock in the Delmarva region with a high rate of natural mortality.
"We're all proceeding together," du Pont said.
Salisbury-based Perdue Farms Inc., which contracted with the Delaware farm where infection was found yesterday, participated in destroying the flock there. The company says it believes the birds became infected by a private backyard flock of chickens that was raised for the New York City live bird markets.
"This is not a food safety or human health issue, but an animal health issue. We acted quickly to protect poultry flocks," Bruce Stewart-Brown, Perdue's vice president of food safety and quality, said in a statement.
The longer it takes to eradicate the avian flu, the more it will cost farmers.
Vance Phillips, a Sussex County councilman and poultry farmer, said a grower gets paid about $200 to $300 per 1,000 birds slaughtered for sale, depending on the weight. Broilers are mature at 7 weeks old; roasters are killed after 9 to 10 weeks.
He said the Sussex County farmer whose flock was infected stands to lose roughly $22,000 immediately, plus untold amounts while the operation sits, unable to start raising a new flock.
That's a nightmare beyond the lost income, because growers have to cover the mortgage payments on their chicken houses, generally $160,000 for a space that holds about 25,000 birds, he said.
"Seems like a hurricane's coming, and you just batten down the hatches and pray that it turns," he said. "It could be devastating for Delmarva."
It took four months and the killing of nearly 5 million poultry to stop the spread of avian flu in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley two years ago, a direct loss of about $150 million - and untold losses to farmers stuck in quarantine, unable to raise more birds.