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State and poultry industry take precautions against bird flu

Agriculture officials and poultry farmers in Maryland are taking extra precautions against bird flu after outbreaks have devastated flocks in other states.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture has banned the entry of waterfowl in fairs and shows in the state, stepped up testing requirements for poultry and met with emergency-management officials to prepare in case of an outbreak here. Some farms are taking part in additional training.

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No cases of the avian flu have been reported in Maryland. But state officials say they are reaching out to commercial farmers in the state's $1 billion poultry industry and the growing number of backyard chicken enthusiasts.

The strain of bird flu that has hit states throughout the Midwest and Pacific Northwest is "very virulent," state veterinarian Dr. Michael Radebaugh said. "It doesn't take a lot to spread."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has confirmed cases of highly pathogenic avian flu in 21 states since December. Fifteen states had outbreaks in domestic poultry and six in wild birds only.

The disease spreads through the animals' saliva, feces and nasal secretions. The economic threat can be devastating for farms, but the disease poses low risk to human health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Iowa, the nation's leading producer of eggs, more than 31.5 million birds have been affected, leading Gov. Terry Branstad to declare disaster in 18 counties. In an effort to control the spread of the disease, state and federal authorities there are euthanizing impacted birds.

The outbreak in the Midwest has boosted prices for eggs and roasting turkeys, the USDA reported this month, but has pushed chicken prices down, because other countries are restricting poultry imports from the United States. Fewer exports mean plenty of chicken available here.

Officials say the rate of new avian flu cases has slowed, but concerns remain. Maryland ranks eighth among the states in the production of broiler and meat chicken. During a 1983 outbreak of avian influenza in the Mid-Atlantic region, egg, broiler and turkey producers lost nearly $200 million, according to the Maryland Cooperative Extension.

"I hope we never get it, but the chance is always there," said Jonathan Moyle, a poultry specialist with the Lower Eastern Shore Research and Education Center in Salisbury.

A spokeswoman for Salisbury-based Perdue Farms said the chicken giant is following its regular protocol to stop the spread of all disease and making sure its poultry houses are bird-proof to prevent exposure to waterfowl and wild birds.

The company also is participating in training and preparatory response exercises with state and federal officials, spokeswoman Julie DeYoung said. As part of regular operating procedures, she said, every flock is tested for avian flu before they leave the farm.

"We are closely monitoring the situation and staying in close contact with state veterinarians and other animal health agencies," DeYoung said. "We will reconsider our approach should the situation change, such as an outbreak in a neighboring state or on the recommendation of the state veterinarian."

George Stutzman and his wife, Linda, operate a chicken farm in Denton that contracts with Perdue. The farm has been in business for 30 years and currently has five chicken houses for 100,000 birds.

He said Perdue requires providers to put up signs prohibiting unauthorized visitors, among other precautions. Trucks must be disinfected before entering the farm.

"We keep track of where people have been," he said. "If everybody was more vigilant about the biosecurity, we wouldn't have such a bad outbreak. "

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A spokesman for Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods, which operates a facility on the Eastern Shore, said the company tests all of its birds for the virus before they leave the farm, and knows the results before they're processed.

"We take the threat of this disease very seriously," spokesman Worth Sparkman said. "We have biosecurity measures in place that are designed to protect poultry raised for our company."

In May, state agriculture officials banned waterfowl — which can spread the disease even when not showing symptoms — from being entered in fairs and shows.

Poultry may still be entered, but both in- and out-of-state poultry must be tested for bird flu 10 days in advance, spokeswoman Julie Oberg said. Previously, only poultry from other states needed to be tested.

Some states have banned poultry shows altogether. Radebaugh, the state veterinarian, said state officials did not feel that step was necessary because there has been no outbreak in the Mid-Atlantic.

Lynne Ferguson, whose family operates the Ferguson Family Farm in Parkton, said the operation has always taken precautions against avian flu.

Ferguson said she does not accept birds from "backyard flocks," and limits visitors on the farm.

"My job is to keep it safe and nutritious for them as much as possible," she said. "That is why I don't offer petting zoo opportunities."

She said customers have not expressed concern about avian flu.

"They are more concerned about increasing costs and the availability of birds," Ferguson said.

Sparkman, the Tyson spokesman, said there was no evidence to suggest that any form of avian influenza can be transmitted to humans from poultry that has been cooked properly.

Agricultural officials say they are also reaching out to Maryland's growing number of backyard chicken farmers.

Such operations have become popular in recent years, expanding in suburban areas including Baltimore, Howard, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties.

The number of flocks on the state's poultry registry has grown from 3,800 to 4,500 in the last four years, Radebaugh said.

Dr. Nathaniel Tablante, poultry veterinarian for the University of Maryland Extension, said flock owners need to be proactive.

"We don't have to blow it out of proportion, but every day we're still getting outbreaks," he said. "The bottom line is we need to control what we can."

Carroll County extension agent Bryan Butler said people who keep backyard flocks should follow proper practices to prevent the outbreak's spread locally.

"The big thing here is that this is not a human health issue," Butler said. "One of the concerns we have is that there are so many people in Carroll County that have just a couple of chickens. We want to make them aware that if they're following good biosecurity, there really is nothing to be concerned about."

The extension service advises poutry owners to keep their birds away from wild birds, eliminate standing water and excess feed to prevent wild waterfowl from gathering, and report any sick birds or unusual bird deaths to the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Amy Lawrence has 15 chickens at her home in Eldersburg to provide eggs for her family. She said it's important for backyard enthusiasts to register with the state so they get email alerts and other information.

Lawrence said she washes hands faithfully, keeps visitors to a minimum and keeps a pair of shoes to wear only around the birds.

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She said it's critical to "do whatever you can do as a backyard flock owner to protect the Maryland poultry industry."

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Mayah S. Collins and Michel Elben and Tribune and Associated Press news services contributed to this article.

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