Europe loosens ban on poultry from U.S.

Avian-flu fears ease but dispute persists over chlorine treatment

March 31, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

In a welcome but largely symbolic move for the embattled U.S. chicken industry, the European Union lifted most restrictions yesterday on U.S. poultry imports that were imposed after a multistate outbreak of avian influenza.

Exports of chicken products around the world account for about 15 percent of the U.S. industry's business, and partial and full bans by 49 countries and the EU have been considered the greatest threat to the industry's health. Many individual growers on and around infected farms in Maryland, Delaware and Texas have been heavily burdened by quarantines and the slaughtering of their flocks.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been negotiating with countries that banned U.S. products after discovery of the flu in February.

The EU announcement, however, was only a small victory, some industry analysts said.

In a trade dispute that has simmered since long before the flu outbreak, European countries stopped importing U.S. chicken in 1998 when the chlorine in which the processed chickens are rinsed was labeled a carcinogen there. Imports of U.S. table eggs could resume, but many European buyers are unwilling to pay U.S. market prices driven up by the low-carbohydrate diet craze, industry observers say.

Still, the move to ease restrictions has not gone unnoticed.

"It is symbolic, but we hope it sets the example for other countries," said Toby Moore, a spokesman for the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council. "In a year of bad news, it's a little bit of good news."

In another development yesterday welcomed by the industry, the Maryland Department of Agriculture said it will announce Friday if most restrictions on farmers in the area surrounding an infected farm in Pocomoke City could be lifted.

A spokeswoman said the state must wait the full 30 days after the detection of flu there to make any announcement.

"We are still under restrictions," stressed Sue DuPont, a department spokeswoman. "But we're hoping we will be able to announce that we are lifting restrictions and talk about where we go from here."

DuPont said the entire Delmarva Peninsula, which includes the Delaware and Maryland farms where the flu was detected, will likely always have to live with heightened awareness and procedures to prevent outbreaks.

Growers have lived with restrictions on their movements, sales of their products and intensified cleaning procedures since the first outbreak last month in Delaware. Testing of flocks continues.

Some were hopeful that the monthlong absence of new cases and the European Union's announcement will lead to similar action by other countries. The European Union now will ban poultry products from only Texas and British Columbia, where more virulent strains of the flu were discovered. The EU lifted its ban on most Canadian poultry as well as much of the U.S. industry.

"It is now timely to lift most of the import restrictions as all necessary information provided by the two countries indicate that the high pathogenic avian influenza outbreaks in the two countries have been confined to a limited area," David Byrne, the EU's commissioner for health and consumer protection, said in a statement.

None of the strains found in flocks in Maryland, Delaware and Texas or live bird markets in New Jersey is considered dangerous to humans. But the highly contagious virus sickens chickens and the birds must be destroyed and the growing areas cleaned to prevent the flu spreading and possibly mutating into a more pathogenic strain like those found in some Asian countries.

Asia will be the U.S. industry's focus now.

China and Hong Kong, the second- and third-largest importers, bought $283 million in U.S. poultry products last year.

Russia, the biggest U.S. poultry customer, with $369 million in imports, had only banned products from states where the flu was found, which means poultry from other states could be substituted.

"The EU's decision will have no great impact on the industry," said Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, a trade group. "But it's good news that a major trading partner in general has agreed to regionalize its ban, that is, to look at this on a state-by-state basis."

Mexico has also made some changes to its ban, although it still restricts imports.

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