Keeping bird flu far from flocks

Delmarva chicken industry is better prepared for risk


CENTREVILLE -- Don't get Jenny Rhodes wrong. She and her two grown sons are as friendly as any of their Eastern Shore neighbors in this rural swath of corn and bean fields and high-tech chicken houses - so long as you obey the warning tacked to the metal farm gate at the end of the driveway.


"A friend from Easton stopped right in her tracks and called my cell phone to see if she could visit," said Rhodes, who has raised chickens for 20 years. "I said everything is fine, as long as you're not getting anywhere near our chicken houses. Nobody, except for the family or our poultry service man, is getting near those birds."

The last outbreak of avian influenza here came nearly two years ago and resulted in the destruction of more than 300,000 birds. Rhodes and others in the business say it taught tough lessons that have left them better prepared for new threats, including the more virulent H5N1 avian flu strain blamed for the deaths of more than 60 people in Asia.

Ten thousand of the distinctive red-and-white signs have been handed out on the three-state peninsula by Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., the main business trade group, and posted at farms that produce a half-billion chickens a year.

Farmers like Rhodes and her sons, Chris, 21, and Ryan, 19, say they never enter any of their four chicken houses without changing clothes. Clean clothes are always on hand in a cramped laundry room in their trim rancher about 150 yards from the nearest chicken house.

The farmers' boots are scrubbed in bleach or disinfectant each time they enter a house, which holds 20,000 birds at a time.

Service managers who check on flocks raised by contract growers around the region don disposable paper clothes, head covers and shoe covers before examining the birds being grown for slaughter.

And Bill Satterfield, director of the poultry alliance, said that by the end of next month, the industry will begin routinely testing each flock on more than 5,000 farms for avian flu. Most farms produce five flocks a year, and a sample from each flock will be tested a few days before slaughter.

"I think it's obvious that there's greater cooperation and a much broader base of information within the industry than there ever has been," Satterfield said. "Right now, as far as we know, there is no active strain of avian influenza in the United States. If it does come, we know for sure that we're better positioned to handle it."

Growers could scarcely afford not to be. Poultry is a $1.7 billion industry on the peninsula.

In 2004, officials ordered all birds destroyed on infected farms and a quarantine on all farms within a five-mile radius until their birds tested negative. The virus then was a low-grade strain of avian flu, not the dangerous H5N1 strain from Asia.

After the outbreak, skittish growers kept mostly to themselves for fear they would collect or pass on the virus just by coming in contact with other farmers. Shindigs like an annual awards banquet and the Delmarva Chicken Festival were canceled or postponed.

"We have a big investment to protect here," Rhodes said. "The last time we had [an avian outbreak], we even dug a vat in the driveway so every vehicle's tires were disinfected before they got near the chicken houses."

Rhodes raises five flocks of 80,000 birds each year. Because the chickens spend their lives together inside, one case of avian flu would require the destruction of the entire flock - or 20 percent of her annual income of $100,000.

Sue duPont, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said dealing with people, not birds, may be the toughest hurdle. "Our biggest challenge now might be in having people understand that bird flu is separate from any strain that has ever affected human beings in this country," she said.

Industry officials point out that chickens on U.S. farms are raised in a controlled environment in their short lives, a far cry from conditions in Asia, where chickens and humans sometimes share living spaces.

Growers, industry leaders and researchers are quick to add that there are currently no outbreaks of avian flu in the U.S., and the more virulent Asian bird flu has never appeared here.

Nonetheless, concerns about possible mutations of the virus prompted the formation of a work group of growers and local public health and industry officials to create a plan for controlling any future outbreak on Delmarva.

The blueprint of local standards it put together over five months last year was designed to mesh with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

"Our biggest concern is if avian influenza mixes with any human flu and then is transmitted from person-to-person," said David Blythe, an epidemiologist for the state Health Department.

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