Bans on U.S. poultry spread

More than 30 nations block imports of birds

A virulent flu strain in Texas

Reaction laid to Asia's unrelated but lethal cases

February 25, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

A highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza in Texas prompted more countries to ban U.S. imports of U.S. poultry yesterday, an unusual and troubling blow for an industry that sells a significant portion of its products internationally.

More than 30 countries have blocked at least some poultry items from the United States or from certain states, such as Delaware, where the first cases were discovered several weeks ago.

Mexico expanded its ban yesterday to the entire United States, South Korea made its informal ban official, and the 15-nation European Union jumped on the bandwagon, although it isn't a major customer because it imports only live chickens, live turkeys and eggs from the United States.

Last year, nearly 15 percent of poultry meat produced in the United States was exported, a $1.8 billion business. Most of that was broiler chickens.

The top five importers of U.S. broilers -- Russia, Hong Kong, China, Mexico and South Korea -- have imposed at least partial bans on U.S. poultry. Together, they imported nearly $800 million in U.S. broilers last year.

"We're highly concerned, naturally," Toby Moore, spokesman for the Georgia-based USA Poultry & Egg Export Council, said of the bans. "It's really gotten kind of crazy."

Delaware has not found signs of avian flu since it was detected on two farms there more than two weeks ago. About 250 Delaware farms have since tested negative for the disease.

The state and chicken companies on the Delmarva Peninsula are continuing to test because poultry is an important part of the economy in the region, which includes parts of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia.

After the Delaware cases, various strains of the flu were discovered at four live-bird markets in New Jersey, a farm in Pennsylvania and, on Friday, at a southeast Texas farm that supplies the live-bird markets in Houston.

Unlike the Asian bird flu, none of the American strains is considered harmful to humans. But the Texas case is the first in 20 years in the United States that is highly pathogenic, meaning it's more deadly to the poultry.

"There's nothing to indicate that it's spread beyond that farm," said Richard L. Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council. "The things that need to be done are being done. We just hope that foreign governments will look at the facts and make a decision on the basis of the facts. ... People are being awfully quick on the trigger about these trade bans."

Lobb said the international reaction is unusual and seems to be an overreaction spurred by worries about the deadly Asian strain. Avian influenza appears somewhere in the United States nearly every year.

Perdue Farms Inc. in Salisbury, one of the major Delmarva poultry companies, shouldn't be greatly affected by the bans because it doesn't export much chicken, said company spokeswoman Tita Cherrier.

"But then again, it may be too early" to say, she noted. "Who knows in the long run?"

Exporters are in limbo, Moore said, and there's "a fair amount of product in jeopardy" because it's on ships that have sailed overseas but haven't been permitted to unload.

"It really shows ... how international our industry has become when a chicken sneezes in Delaware and the impact is felt in Japan," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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