PHILADELPHIA—From his poultry shop in Philadelphia's low-income Kensington neighborhood, Tony Tranh sells about 300 live birds each week, mainly to poor Asian and Hispanic immigrants.
He used to sell 600 live chickens, guinea hens, ducks and pigeons a week, but that was before the avian flu scare.
"The people are scared," said Tranh, the owner of Mac's Poultry.
Not without reason. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture temporarily closed two of Philadelphia's five live-bird markets last year after mild strains of avian flu virus were detected during routine inspections. Those strains were different from the lethal H5N1 strain and posed no threat to humans, the agency said.
But as the deadly H5N1 strain moves through Europe and parts of the Middle East and Africa, U.S. and state agriculture officials are taking no chances. They've increased avian flu testing at live-bird markets in 21 states, including Pennsylvania, New York, California, Texas and Florida.
The heightened surveillance comes as the United States prepares, beginning in April, to ramp up avian flu testing of wild birds that are making their seasonal migration through Alaska after wintering in Asia.
The nation's $53 billion chicken industry also began a self-funded effort recently to test all commercial chicken flocks for avian flu before the birds are sent for processing.
Officials hope that these early detection efforts will help avert an H5N1 outbreak that could devastate the nation's health and economy.
"We hope that it doesn't come here. But our planning is on the assumption that it will arrive here. And we need to be prepared," said Ron DeHaven, who heads the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
The virus is on the move worldwide, spreading to 14 more countries in February: Iraq, Niger, Nigeria, Italy, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Iran, Austria, Germany, Greece, Egypt, India, Azerbaijan and France. It's killed millions of birds and more than 90 people worldwide.
H5N1 is spread from bird to bird and, more rarely, from bird to human. Health experts fear that it will mutate to a form that passes easily from human to human and cause a worldwide pandemic.
DeHaven said the live-bird markets historically had been a weak link in the fight against bird flu because they'd been a persistent source of low-grade strains of the virus such as the recent outbreak in Philadelphia. While those strains are passed only from bird to bird, they too could mutate into more dangerous forms and move from human to human.
Federal law requires live-bird markets to be tested at least four times a year, but many states test more often. The New York City area's nearly 100 live markets are checked six to eight times a year, said Jessica Chittenden, a spokeswoman for the New York state agriculture department.
Pennsylvania's agriculture department leads the nation in flu surveillance, testing more than 240,000 samples a year. Tranh said state workers conducted unannounced inspections at least once a month.
In his store, cages housing eight to 10 birds each are stacked 6 feet high on each wall of the narrow shop. The air is thick with dust and feathers. One employee wears a surgical mask as she greets customers eager to peruse the shop's several hundred birds.
Once chosen, the unlucky bird is pulled, squawking, from the cage by its feet. It's then weighed and taken in back, where its head is lopped off. The bird then is drained of blood and placed in a machine that defeathers it.
Minutes later, the customers are handed their dead bird—with feet attached—in a clear plastic bag.
Julie Dinh, a 35-year-old Vietnamese woman, bought three chickens that she'll use with rice for soup. Dinh said she didn't worry about avian flu because the H5N1 virus hadn't reached U.S. shores. "It doesn't scare me," Dinh said. "We eat a lot of chicken."
Tranh, however, knows that others are worried. He's considered posting his shop's negative test results in the window to assure customers that his birds are safe. "My store is different," he said. "My store is clean."
But cleanliness isn't the main problem, said Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, a trade association that represents the U.S. commercial chicken industry. Live markets allow birds from a variety of farms to intermingle, increasing the chances that an infected fowl can pass the disease to other birds, store employees and customers.
"What concerns me is the mixing of birds from different places in one spot," Lobb said. "We warn the farmers who work with our industry to have absolutely no dealings with the live-bird markets."
The chickens used by large processors such as Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms typically are born in hatcheries and taken to the farms when they're a day old, Lobb said.
On the farms, the birds are raised in giant enclosed buildings, protected from contact with wildlife and humans. Farmers are encouraged to wear protective clothing when they enter the chicken houses, and all vehicles and equipment that transport and handle the birds must be disinfected.
U.S. chicken sales haven't been affected by the flu scare, but a recent survey by the Harvard School of Public Health found that 46 percent of people would stop eating chicken if bird flu hits the American poultry industry.
Those concerns, in part, helped spark the industry's nationwide testing program, which began in January. So far, 94 percent of the commercial farms that raise chickens for large companies such as Tyson and Perdue are participating. Those farms account for nearly all the chicken sold in the United States, Lobb said.
The program calls for 11 birds per commercial flock to be tested by throat swab or blood sample, Lobb said. Because avian flu is so contagious, the 11 tests provide a 95 percent chance of detecting the virus in a flock of up to 50,000 birds. If a hazardous strain of the virus is found, the entire flock would be destroyed and all nearby flocks would be quarantined and tested.
The industry is concerned because "consumer hysteria" has led to a dramatic decline in chicken consumption in countries with confirmed bird-flu cases, said Jim Sumner, the president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council, in Atlanta. Nearly $3 billion in U.S. poultry production, about 15 percent, is sold to foreign countries.
American chicken exports fell 28 percent from November to December, the most recent data available, Sumner said. He expects January and February exports to show a similar nosedive.
Sumner recently met with poultry industry representatives in Dubai and Russia, the world's largest foreign buyer of U.S. poultry, to stress that American chicken is safe. He'll make the same pitch in Mexico and throughout Asia in the coming weeks.
The council also has developed an ad campaign for foreign consumers. "Our theme is `just cook it,'" Sumner said. "There is no health concern for eating poultry."
On another front, the U.S. has tested more than 12,000 migratory birds in Alaska for the deadly avian virus since 1998 with no positive results. That effort will get a major boost next month when new bird-surveillance stations open throughout the Alaskan and Pacific migratory routes known as "flyways."
"Because so many birds that winter in Asia also come to Alaska to breed each summer, this is where we most expect natural landfall of the highly pathogenic Asian H5N1," said Kevin Winker, curator of birds and an associate professor at the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks.
Such a finding probably wouldn't trigger any response by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services "unless we thought there was the likelihood that we would start to see contact between (wild) birds and people" or the domestic food supply is threatened, HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt said in a recent interview.
"At some point in time there'll be (an infected) wild bird that'll be discovered in the United States and we'll need to be prepared to respond to that," Leavitt added. "That in and of itself will not be an emergency, but something we should expect."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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