By Jamie Smith Hopkins and Rona Kobell and Chris Guy
DOVER, Del. - Delmarva chicken farmers appear to have dodged a bullet: Tests released yesterday show no spread of the avian influenza discovered in Delaware on a southern Kent County farm.
Now state officials are trying to stamp out negative economic ripples from the flu outbreak, which isn't the Asian strain harmful to humans but has convinced about a half-dozen countries to ban poultry imports from Delaware or the United States.
Avian flu pops up about every year somewhere, but officials believe that this is its first appearance in the small, poultry-intensive state.
"This appears to be an isolated incident, and there is no reason why people across the country or around the world shouldn't be able to enjoy a Delaware chicken dinner tonight or in the future," Gov. Ruth Ann Minner said yesterday, during a news conference at the Department of Agriculture in Dover.
Poultry farming is the linchpin of the Delmarva economy. Broilers - chickens bred to be eaten - accounted for more than $1.5 billion in wholesale business last year in the 14 agricultural counties along the Eastern Shores of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. About 5 percent of the 577 million broilers were shipped internationally.
Sussex County, Del., produces more chickens than any other county in the nation.
"Without poultry, there would just be a tremendous amount of heartache on Delmarva," said Vance Phillips, a Sussex County councilman and a chicken farmer.
Since Saturday, Delaware has tested 20 poultry houses on a dozen farms within a two-mile radius of the affected operation. Officials are waiting on results of the final flock, which are expected today, but the other tests came back negative.
All 12,000 birds in the infected flock were killed Saturday, a day after the flu was confirmed. The state declined to identify the owner, but said he is the only independent grower among Delaware's 2,090 poultry farmers, the rest of whom contract with big chicken companies such as Perdue Farms Inc. in Salisbury.
The man sells to the New York City markets that offer poultry - and other animals - live, officials said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture monitors those live markets. But the National Chicken Council, which represents the commercial chicken companies, says more regulation is needed.
"The fact that this keeps popping up shows that the virus is present in the northeastern United States, and in our opinion is kept in circulation by the traffic associated with the live bird markets," said Richard L. Lobb, a spokesman for the council.
Delaware officials said they are still investigating the cause of the outbreak and did not say who was at fault. They expect to hear today whether this flu is a high pathogenic or low pathogenic strain, though they believe it's the latter.
At the southern Kent County farm where the flu was found, a state trooper kept an eye on people passing by as Delaware Department of Agriculture workers - dressed in hazmat suits - finished cleaning up yesterday. The farm owner did not appear to be present, and members of the cleanup crew could not identify him.
Workers had removed manure in the chicken houses over the weekend with a Bobcat loader borrowed from a local crop farmer. Yesterday, they power-washed the equipment and disinfected it.
"We're just quarantining the area so nobody comes in or out," said Bob Moore, an inspector with the Delaware Department of Agriculture who was overseeing work at the farm.
Paul Carmine, who lives across the road, was startled by the activity: "I came home, there was a police car in my driveway. I worried a little bit when I saw guys in white suits going in and out of the chicken houses."
Michael Scuse, secretary of the Delaware Department of Agriculture, is urging caution because the avian flu is contagious. He asked the public - and delivery people, if possible - to stay off poultry farms to avoid coming into contact with infectious agents and transporting them elsewhere on shoes or clothes.
"You could be responsible for spreading this disease if you go to a farm that is infected and then go to another farm," Scuse said.
Farmers are taking that so seriously that the most cautious are avoiding any trips.
"Some poultry growers were not even going to church [Sunday] because they didn't want to run the risk," said Bill Satterfield, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc.
A flu epidemic - or public perception thereof - would be the last thing the region needs because the industry is already struggling. Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. appointed a task force in June to assess problems after Tyson Foods Inc. announced plans to close its Berlin chicken processing plant and lay off 650 workers.
The Callahan family in Queen Anne's County, about 20 miles from Delaware, would be overjoyed if this outbreak is over. They have about 100,000 chicks, and it would cost them $25,000 to $30,000 immediately if the flock had to be destroyed.
"It could wipe us out easily," said Marvin Callahan, 42, who farms with his parents, Alvin and Audrey. "We're just hoping and praying that they've gotten it quickly enough and contained it."
Although the avian flu pops up about every year, it's not nearly as widespread as the human variety. It can be an economic nightmare. It left nearly 5 million dead birds in its wake - and $135 million in direct losses - when it hit Virginia two years ago.
"One of the lessons we learned from there was the absolute critical need for good biosecurity on the farm," said Elaine J. Lidholm, spokeswoman with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Anyone going on or off a poultry farm in Virginia is strongly encouraged to cover their footwear with disposable booties and disinfect their tires, among other measures.
Perdue Farms said yesterday that it has similar rules for its growers to follow.
"You can bet they are because it's their livelihood they're protecting as well," said Tita Cherrier, a spokeswoman for Perdue.
In Maryland, where poultry is the largest agricultural industry, the last avian flu outbreak was in 1993 at a Queen Anne's County game-bird farm. With the flu's recent appearance nearby, Maryland Department of Agriculture officials intend to conduct more frequent tests of flocks raised by independent growers as an extra precaution, said spokeswoman Sue du Pont.
"You really can't be too careful," she said.
Industry watchers are hopeful that the import bans on poultry will be lifted once the country can get the word out that everything seems to be back to normal. That's what has occurred in the past.
"Once you've stamped it out, you've stamped it out," said Lobb, with the National Chicken Council.
Most farmers stopping at Hudson Farm Supply Co. in the southern Kent County, Del., town of Harrington were more concerned about the potential economic impact than the direct threat to their chickens.
"They want to know why there's such an outcry if it's safe to eat," said Ruth Hudson, who runs the store.
It's uppermost in Natalie Parde's mind because she has a chicken farm in the Delaware town of Hartly and travels to other poultry operations for her job at McCullough Insurance Agency in Harrington. She doesn't want to pick up anything infectious on her shoes and track it back to her farm.
"There's always a worry ... but that's farming," Parde said. "You put crops in the field and you don't know whether they're going to make it or not."