Amid growing noise about a worldwide avian influenza pandemic, Arkansas officials insist the state’s poultry industry — the largest in the nation — is doing everything it can to keep the disease out of commercial flocks. So far, it’s working.

The avian flu virus is spread by chickens, ducks and other birds. A problem in Southeast Asia for years, the virus has recently continued a steady march west. It has now been found in birds in Turkey, Greece, Romania and the United Kingdom.

Infected by birds, some 65 Asians have died of the virus since 2003. While that number doesn’t seem to justify the current frenzied media reporting, health officials say the number of deaths would leap if the virus ever mutates and becomes capable of spreading from human to human.

So what does all this mean for the Mid-South poultry industry?

“Here are some facts,” said Phil Wyrick, executive director of the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission. “First, we don’t have the Asian bird flu — or high-path avian influenza — in the United States. If there was, the poultry industry would know of an incidence incredibly fast. There is an amazing amount of surveillance going on.”

In Arkansas more disease surveillance is done than in any other state.

“We’re the number one poultry producer so that’s just good business.”

The possibility of avian disease in the Mid-South area hasn’t been ignored. Four years ago, to get ahead of a possible outbreak of an exotic disease, Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma poultry representatives hammered out a detailed plan with state and federal regulators.

“Whether that disease is avian influenza, a Newcastle type of disease or something else, the plan to deal with them has been in place for years,” said Morril Harriman, executive vice president of the Poultry Federation of Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. “We’ve been ready.”

Wyrick echoes Harriman’s claims. “(Fears of avian influenza) continue to have legs. I think what’s important is we recognize that anytime a disease can cross species — like from a bird to a human — we must work with the authorities from the human side. Before this was in the headlines, we were meeting with health departments discussing the possibilities of something like this occurring.”

Over the last 15 months, through a federal grant, Arkansas has run 4,000 samples testing for high-path avian influenza.

“Someone might say, ‘Well, 4,000 samples is just a drop in the bucket when considering how many chickens you have,’” said Wyrick. “But those samples are very significant because they come from a selected group: backyard flocks. In Asia, in fact, there hasn’t been an outbreak of the virus in commercial flocks. The virus has been in the backyard flocks there.”

The “backyard flock” designation can fit anything from a small henhouse to pets to fighting cocks.

“So the 4,000 samples provide a very good representation of what’s happening. We’re sampling many different flocks from all corners in the state. And I emphasize every sample has been negative. We’re right in the heart of where the disease would incubate and start. We’ve been very thorough in checking.”

How does this stack up to numbers in other states?

“We’ve turned in more samples to the USDA than any other state. We took more than 4,000 samples, but that was all USDA would take. The state with the next highest sample total was New Jersey with 2,424. Percentage-wise we did quite a bit more.”

Even New Jersey didn’t fan out all over the state to collect samples. Wyrick said samplers there traveled to live bird markets to gather blood.

Arkansas also has a testing program for low-path avian influenza. “We just received $100,000 from the U.S. government and have the program started. In it, blood samples are gathered from commercial operations.

“The only other state that got as much money to do these tests is Georgia. That state is just behind Arkansas on poultry production. So we now have the resources to expand that program.”

Besides the two programs, other “constant” testing is being done in the poultry industry, said Harriman. “There’s a lot going on in terms of surveillance. That’s why we’re so confident in saying we don’t have it.”

In explaining how avian influenza begins in Asia, Wyrick points to differences in a typical family’s proximity to fowl. “It’s common in the (flu-originating countries) for animals to live in close contact with families — if not in the residence itself. That doesn’t happen here. It’s a different culture altogether.”

For this reason, both men believe avian influenza won’t spring up in the United States.

“If we’re going to get bird flu it’ll come from a person who’s traveled here from a foreign nation,” said Harriman. “That’s out of our hands, but there’s certainly a lot of attention in that direction. Of course, that falls under human health responsibilities.”

Because humans can vector the disease to chickens, poultry operations have become increasingly difficult to access. Time-consuming steps intended to keep disease out of commercial flocks must be taken by workers and visitors alike. A suggested list provided by Arkansas Extension to producers includes the following:

1. Keep “No Visitors” and/or “Restricted” signs posted at the road entrance of the farm.

2. Do not allow visitors on the farm or in the poultry houses.

3. All farm personnel should wear separate clothing (including shoes, boots, hats, gloves, etc.) on the farm. Clothes used on the farm should stay on the farm.

4. Completely change all clothing after caring for the flock, and wash hands and arms thoroughly before leaving the premises.

5. Do not visit other poultry farms or flocks or have contact with any other species of birds.

6. Keep all poultry houses securely locked. Lock all houses from the inside while working inside.

7. All equipment, crates, coops, etc., must be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected before and after use.

8. All essential visitors (owners, feed delivery personnel, poultry catchers and haulers, service men, etc.) are to wear protective outer clothing (coveralls), boots, and headgear prior to being allowed near the poultry flock or farm.

9. Monitor all vehicles (service, feed delivery, poultry delivery or removal, etc.) entering the premises to determine if they have been properly cleaned and disinfected. This includes disinfection of the tires and vehicle undercarriage.

10. Sick and dying birds should be submitted to a diagnostic laboratory for proper diagnosis of the problem. All commercial growers should contact their flock supervisor and follow their instructions.

11. Dead birds are to be properly disposed of by burial, incineration or other approved method.

12. Any person handling wild game (especially waterfowl) must completely change clothing and shower or bathe before entering the premises.

13. Do not borrow equipment, vehicles, etc., from another poultry farm.

14. Do not visit areas where avian influenza is a problem.

“It is difficult to get on a chicken farm or swine facility now,” said Wyrick. “You have to suit up and the bio-security of companies like Tyson, George’s or Cobb, a breeder facility, is almost like preparing for a space flight. You have to shower, put on protective clothing and sterilize things. It’s an ordeal to get in and only certain folks are allowed in.

“The security is unbelievable. CBS news was (in northwest Arkansas) doing a story on our lab capabilities. They had a great deal of trouble getting into an operation to take some pictures. I don’t think they ever did because the security is so, so tight — and for good reason.”

Asked if he encounters such security at poultry facilities across Arkansas, a supplier of poultry medicines insists he does. “Everyone takes this very seriously. Honestly, it’s a pain in the neck, but everyone understands we’re trying to protect a huge industry.”

As recently as Oct. 12, Wyrick was involved in a farm quarantine drill. “We handled it as a poultry or livestock disease outbreak. We dressed up in suits, quarantined the farm, and went through plans on how we’d depopulate and how we’d dispose of everything. Fellow agencies were invited into the drill — emergency management folks, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the state health department and reps from the pork producers.”

The disease threat, said Wyrick, isn’t internal, but “from the outside. Our expertise is in protecting the industry from disease. We’re concentrating on that and it’s a full-time job. Some folks would even call it ‘boring’ because we keep looking for something we hope not to find.”

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com