Bird flu yet to hurt industry

Sun Staff

While the avian influenza outbreak continues to reverberate on the Delmarva Peninsula - with the latest case discovered in Maryland Saturday - it has thus far not rippled to the supermarket shelf.

Despite the slaughter of more than 400,000 chickens infected with the flu in the past month in five states, and bans on U.S. poultry exports by 37 countries and the European Union, officials say, the industry remains healthy, and the consumer impact invisible, because the total number of sick birds is relatively small.

But they warn that financial pressure could increase if more cases are found or the bans continue.

"I just don't know if anyone has a good handle on impacts," said Toby Moore, a spokesman for the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council. "About 15 or 16 percent of the total U.S. chicken production is exported. Much of that completely shut down, but that's not to say it's nonexistent. ... I don't think anyone is going out of business just yet."

Maryland agriculture officials said yesterday that tests for the flu within a two-mile radius of the infected farm in Pocomoke City were negative. Two additional farms farther away but owned by the same grower also tested negative.

"This is an encouraging start to our efforts to find any and all possible avian influenza-positive flocks," said Maryland Secretary of Agriculture Lewis R. Riley. "We will be collecting samples from all of the 63 farms between the two- and six-mile zones around the positive farm through this week and hope that the results remain negative."

The avian flu found in the United States is not harmful to humans who come in contact with or eat infected chickens.

Other countries, mainly in Asia, are grappling with a more harmful strain that has sickened and killed people. In Japan, the chairman of a Japanese poultry company blamed for failing to alert the authorities about an outbreak of avian influenza committed suicide with his wife, authorities discovered yesterday.

Nations grappling with that more harmful strain have implemented partial or full bans on U.S. poultry imports. Five of the largest customers of domestic chicken farms - Hong Kong, South Korea, China, Japan and Mexico - have totally banned U.S. chicken - a loss of $9 million a week.

But Russia, the biggest U.S. customer, has banned only Delaware and Texas chicken thus far, so processors can substitute chickens from other states. In all, the U.S. poultry industry exports $1.5 billion a year worth of meat.

Avian flu, as well as other animal ailments such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), could affect a total of one-third of global meat exports from all countries - or about $10 billion of the estimated $33 billion in animal trade - if trade bans remain in effect through the end of the year, according to a recent report from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.

The trade losses are accruing in 12 countries, including the United States, with reported animal diseases. The biggest impacts are likely on small poultry producers in Asia, where more than 100 million birds have died or been destroyed, the report says.

The report also said that a prolonged ban could force down prices for U.S. chicken, which accounts for about one-third of the world's poultry exports.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been negotiating with foreign countries to lift the bans. So far, only Mexico has said it's considering reducing its ban from all U.S. chicken to just meat from affected states.

In the meantime, the number of chickens destroyed because they are infected or suspect is still considered relatively small. About 328,000 chickens were scheduled to be destroyed in Maryland since the flu was discovered in Pocomoke City on Saturday.

About 85,000 birds in Delaware were destroyed last month. The Delmarva Peninsula produces about 576 million birds a year for consumption.

"The 300,000 birds destroyed in Maryland are not a lot of chickens, considering Maryland in 2002, produced 293 million broilers," said Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, a trade group. "This would have to go on for a really long time to have a major impact."

He did say, however, there are individual growers with losses because their flocks were destroyed to prevent spread of the virus. And some growers have worried about possible increased costs of fertilizer because manure, which can contain the virus, has been banned.

Auctions of equipment and meetings have also been called off, and movement of people and trucks has been limited to prevent spreading the flu.

But growers on the Delmarva Peninsula, who grow chickens mainly for major processors such as Perdue Farms Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc., can send their birds to processing once they've tested negative for flu.

On three Delmarva farms where avian flu has been found, the processor that owns the chickens absorbs the first $100,000 in losses and state and local government programs help offset other losses, according to Perdue.

State officials say they will continue to test for the flu. So far, close to 1,000 farms have tested negative.

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