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Farmers nervous over avian flu outbreak

(Sunday, Feb. 15, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- James Dao, NY Times, 02/13/04: HARRINGTON, Del. These are fearful days in the birthplace of America's chicken industry.

Like a medieval plague that appears without warning and spreads with speed, an avian flu has infected two chicken farms near here, threatening to cut a deadly swath through the most valuable agricultural industry in Delaware and Maryland.

Though no new cases have been detected since the second of the two outbreaks was identified on Feb. 9, state officials are still testing scores of farms within six miles of the two affected farms, concerned that the virus has been spread by migrating geese, air currents or even farmers themselves.

The influenza strain, known as H7, is not a danger to humans, and is not even particularly deadly for chickens. But if allowed to spread, health experts say, it can mutate into a more virulent strain for animals. Consequently, the state typically orders entire flocks destroyed when even a single bird becomes infected.

So far, nearly 86,000 birds at the two farms have been killed, a tiny fraction of the 576 million chickens raised last year on the Chesapeake Bay's eastern shore. But if the virus spreads widely, it could cause devastating economic losses to this griddle-flat peninsula, which encompasses southern Delaware, eastern Maryland and a tiny piece of Virginia. (Hence its nickname, Delmarva.)

"To get a disease in here that you can't cure, that you can't vaccinate for, well, that could cause the destruction of millions of birds worth hundreds of millions of dollars," said Vance Phillips, 41, a chicken farmer in Sussex County, Del., which produces more chickens than any other county in America. "For a rural community, that's a pretty tough hit to take."

Delaware officials say a slow response to an avian flu outbreak in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia two years ago may have contributed to the rapid spread of the disease, which caused the destruction of more than four million chickens and turkeys worth $130 million.

The chicken industry is to Delmarva what Wall Street is to Manhattan or steel once was to Pittsburgh. There are 2,000 chicken farmers on the peninsula, who last year generated $1.5 billion in sales. An additional 14,000 people work in chicken processing plants run by four major companies: Perdue Farms, Allen Family Foods, Mountaire Farms and Tyson Foods. Chicken farming accounts for more than a third of Maryland's agricultural income, and more than two-thirds of Delaware's.

The virus identified in Delaware is a different strain from the H5N1 virus in Asia, which has caused the slaughter of millions of birds there and killed at least 18 people in Thailand and Vietnam. Though both strains are carried by chickens, officials say the H7 strain has never been known to affect humans.

The outbreak has not been serious, yet. But because of it, 14 countries, including China, Mexico and Brazil, have banned imports of chickens from Delaware and, in some cases, from all of the United States. Foreign exports account for about 7 percent of Delmarva's chicken sales.

For that reason, the state and the industry moved rapidly to contain the outbreak as soon as the first report of infection was confirmed at a small independent farm in Harrington on Feb. 6. The farm's 12,000 chickens were destroyed and farms within two miles were quarantined.

For three days, officials thought the outbreak was over. But on Feb. 9, the virus was detected in a flock in Greenwood, Del., five miles away, and real fear set in. This was a first: the flock was owned by Perdue, and no commercial farm in Delaware had ever been infected by avian influenza before. (The vast majority of the peninsula's chicken farmers work for the major processing companies, which scrupulously tend to their flocks to prevent flu infections.)

The farm's 73,800 birds were quickly destroyed and the quarantine was extended to six miles around the two farms, an area covering about 80 farms. Life immediately became very strange for chicken farmers.

These days, farmers wait by their televisions and radios each day for reports on whether new outbreaks have been found. "It's kind of jittery, like right after 9/11," said a man named Johnny at a farm equipment store in town.

The virus can be carried on shoes, clothing, hair, tires and just about anything else that moves. To avoid its spread, farmers in the quarantine area have been told to keep people off their property and to avoid congregating with other farmers. Auctions, church dinners and monthly farm group meetings have been canceled. Equipment repairmen and chicken inspectors have stopped visiting farms.

The quarantine could last three to four more weeks, even if no new infections are discovered, officials said.

When fuel or feed delivery trucks do come to farms, they are accompanied by decontamination teams that spray down their wheels and undercarriages with disinfectant. When farmers do go into town, they are asked to wash their hair, change their clothes and disinfect their tires first.

Adding to the surreal quality of the quarantine, health officials in white biohazard suits have arrived in government-issue vans, stopping to draw blood from sample chicken carcasses that farmers leave in roadside containers.

"It's pretty weird," said Louise Messick, 68, who runs a chicken farm with her husband, Bill, 69, half a mile from the original outbreak. "Everyone is scared right now."

Bill Messick has gone into town just once since last weekend. But he considers himself one of the lucky ones: his chickens tested negative, and he was able to send 56,000 seven-week-old birds to the processing plant on Friday.

"We can't go nowhere and no one can come in," he said from the edge of his property.

In Harrington, gas stations, restaurants and grocery stores are reporting drop-offs in business as farmers stay home. At Peoples Restaurant on Clark Street, Irene Layton, one of the owners, said customers had even stopped ordering her famous chicken dishes out of misguided fears that they could catch the virus.

"I had one woman tell me she wasn't feeling well and thought she had caught the bird flu while driving through the area," Mrs. Layton said.

It is widely believed that the chicken industry was born on the Delmarva peninsula, when Mrs. Wilmer Steele discovered in 1923 that she could make more money selling chickens than eggs. The Perdue family got its start here, and the company's headquarters is still in Salisbury, Md.

Health officials say they believe the original Delaware infection came from a live animal market in New York City. Commercial farmers do not sell at the live markets, which are known as breeding grounds for disease, but independent farmers frequently do. Live markets are also thought to be the source of recent avian flu outbreaks in New Jersey.

For that reason, farmers and commercial processors say they may push for regulations to clean up the live markets once the current outbreak is contained.

"When we talk about avian influenza on this peninsula, people pay attention," said Bill Satterfield, executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., a trade group. "Nobody wants to be the guy who spread it."