Government will kill entire flocks that show signs of bird flu


WASHINGTON (AP) – Free-ranging chickens and small, backyard flocks will be at greatest risk if deadly bird flu reaches the United States, officials said Wednesday.

They also said they would begin killing off flocks large or small if they are suspected of having the virus – even before tests are completed.

Authorities say bird flu is likely to arrive in the United States this year.

If and when it does, “quick detection will be key to quickly containing it and eradicating it,” Ron DeHaven said in an interview with The Associated Press. He is head of the Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Most of America’s chickens come from big commercial farms that keep birds indoors and are well-protected against the spread of disease. Yet there are many flocks in people’s back yards – as many as 60,000 in Los Angeles alone – as well as free-range flocks that are outdoors and could mix with wild birds or their droppings.

Officials encourage those producers to bring flocks inside and watch for signs of flu – dead birds; lack of appetite; purple wattles, combs and legs; coughing or sneezing; diarrhea – and report them immediately to state or federal authorities.

“We can’t afford for this virus to be smoldering six months before we find it,” DeHaven said.

The U.S. has a poultry industry worth more than $29 billion that produces more than 9 billion chickens and 250 million turkeys a year, more than any other country.

Owners will want to report sick birds because they will be paid fair market value for destroyed flocks, DeHaven said. Stopping the spread of bird flu has been more difficult in countries that can’t afford to compensate farmers, he added.

To target owners of small flocks, the Agriculture Department has a campaign that uses Spanish and Vietnamese as well as English.

The virulent strain of bird flu spreading through Asia, Europe and Africa has killed 110 people, and more than 200 million birds have died from the disease or been slaughtered in efforts to contain it.

Scientists fear it could mutate into a form that spreads easily among people, sparking a worldwide epidemic.

The government will be testing more wild birds than usual this year, as many as 100,000, as birds begin arriving next month in Alaska and then fly south along migratory pathways. Chicken and turkey companies are testing nearly every flock for the virus.

“If the virus does arrive in the U.S., we think we’ll find it quickly,” DeHaven said. “We don’t think that it would ever make it into the food chain.”

Regardless, poultry is safe to eat if people cook it to 165 degrees and follow basic kitchen safety rules, he said.

If the virus turns up in commercial chickens or turkeys, the government plans to quarantine the farm, restrict bird movements within about two miles and boost testing within about six miles.

If screening tests suggest a potentially virulent flu virus is present, and the birds show signs of flu, they’ll be killed immediately, even before more detailed testing is finished, DeHaven said. Flocks would be confined and killed with carbon dioxide gas, essentially putting them to sleep, DeHaven said. Authorities refer to this as “depopulation.”

Disposal of dead birds is tricky, because they still may carry the virus. In the past, large numbers of birds have been buried, put in landfills or incinerated, but those procedures can be expensive and cause bureaucratic hassles.

Now, the industry intends to compost the carcasses inside the houses where birds are killed.

To be composted, carcasses are layered with mulch, hosed down and left alone, inside, for four to six weeks, said Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, an industry group. Intense heat generated by composting is more than enough to kill the virus, Lobb said.

The government has vaccines to protect poultry from the virus but is reluctant to use them because vaccinated birds can still spread the virus without appearing sick, said John Clifford, the department’s chief veterinarian. Vaccines could be used in flocks surrounding the area of an outbreak, he said.

On the Net:

Agriculture Department:

Biosecurity for the Birds campaign: