February 25, 2004

 

 

US Poultry Industry Feel Bird Flu Pinch

 

Poultry farmers in the United States are feeling the effects of bird flu as an increasing number of nations ban the import of American chickens, turkeys, eggs and other products.

 

On Tuesday, South Korea and the European Union banned all poultry imports from the United States, while Mexico banned most U.S. imports.

 

The three nations bought U.S. poultry meat products totaling $340 million last year, nearly 20% of the $1.8 billion worth of such exports by American producers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

 

Earlier this month, Russia, China, Japan and other major importers imposed localized trade bans after a less potent form of bird flu turned up in Delaware and Pennsylvania.

 

"Every new media report is like throwing gasoline on a flame," said Toby Moore, a spokesman for the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council, a trade group based in Stone Mountain, Ga. "Even consumers here are asking, 'Is it safe to eat chicken?' It's not like there's arsenic in it."

 

Russia, which received nearly a quarter of all U.S. poultry meat exports in 2003, has so far limited its ban to Texas products, but it is weighing whether to widen it to the entire United States.

 

James Grimm, executive vice president of the Texas Poultry Federation, said his membership of about 1,200 growers has annual exports between $150 million and $200 million.

 

"It does leave a huge economic impact on us," he said of the export bans.

 

The poultry bans follow recent import bans by more than 50 countries on U.S. beef and cattle following the discovery of a single case of mad cow disease in Washington state in December. Exports represent about 10% of the nation's $40 billion beef industry.

 

Rising concern about chicken is also prompting some major growers who supply domestic markets to reassure Americans that their brands are not tainted by disease.

 

"At this time, no Tyson flocks have been diagnosed with (avian influenza), either in Texas or in the other areas of the U.S.," Tyson Foods (TSN), the nation's largest poultry producer, said Tuesday. "Nonetheless, the companies in the commercial poultry industry are taking the finding very seriously and will adopt every possible measure to ensure the disease remains isolated."

 

The USDA said Monday that Texas agriculture officials took the most important steps to control a highly contagious strain of avian flu found last week in Gonzales County, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of San Antonio.

 

All 6,600 birds in the infected flock were quickly killed, and the Texas Animal Health Commission began sampling poultry on farms within a 16-kilometer (10-mile) radius of the farm where the disease was found. And two live-bird markets in Houston where the disease was also found have been shut down.

 

Carla Everett, a commission spokeswoman, said Tuesday that no new cases of avian flu have been found in the state.

 

The flu found in Texas is not the same strain that has killed at least 22 people in Asia, said Dr. Ron DeHaven of the USDA. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it poses little threat to humans.

 

"We just got caught up in a triple-witching hour," Moore said. "Our cases came on the heels of the Asian outbreaks and bans flying everywhere, and countries just overreacted."

 

The Texas cases are the first U.S. incidence of bird flu considered "high-pathogenic," or very lethal to poultry, since 1983-84.

 

In that outbreak, which mainly affected Pennsylvania and Virginia, what looked to be a mild strain was not treated aggressively and it morphed into a form far more deadly to birds. It took about two years and $70 million to wipe out the disease, with more than 20 million chickens killed in the process.