Whether vectored by birds or something else, there is little doubt a flu pandemic threatens the world. However, as many in the poultry industry readily admit, that has always been the case. So it is puzzling why avian influenza (AI) has suddenly become the angst du jour.

“This story is really popular,” said Phil Wyrick, executive director of the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission. “It just won't level off. The world media continues to ride this horse.”

Representing the state with the largest poultry base in the nation, Wyrick insists he's “not trying to downplay the tragedy of those who have died from (avian influenza) — 65 at last count, I believe. How horrible for their families. But I'm not sure the response from the world media is warranted.”

That said, “We're committed to aggressively do surveillance work in Arkansas. We don't anticipate finding any avian influenza and every test has been negative. I repeat: there's been no avian influenza found in the United States.”

Testing numbers for Arkansas' collective flock continues to climb. “There's certainly been no slacking on testing. With everything that's going on, the poultry industry is compelled to expand surveillance work and make sure the public has confidence in the product.”

For the year, as of Nov. 17, the Arkansas state lab has tested 105,291 samples from the state's commercial flock looking for disease.

“Previously, the record for testing the number of flocks in a day was 48. That stood until (the second week of November) when we tested 58 flocks in a day. That represents a huge number of birds.”

Few know that half of Arkansas' agricultural sales are attributed to poultry, said Wyrick. “Rice, soybeans and cotton play a huge part in the state too. But poultry is incredibly important to the state's economy. So it's imperative we maintain consumer confidence.”

The testing serves as a “backstop for us. Anyone who asks, ‘How do you know you don't have it?’ can be shown the reams of data we have. Bio-security also continues to be of utmost importance. We'll continue it and improve on it.”

Hearings

With poultry as the largest agriculture sector in the state, Georgia is also heavily invested in a healthy industry. Thus one of the reasons Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss was keen to preside over Nov. 17 Senate Agriculture Committee hearings on avian influenza.

“In 2004, the total farm value of poultry and eggs produced in Georgia was $3.26 billion and the statewide economic impact of the overall poultry industry was an estimated $13.5 billion,” said Chambliss. “…Recent media reports have discussed avian influenza and what many in the media have called an ‘impending’ pandemic. While there is legitimate concern, there has also been a great deal of confusion and misinformation.

“We must be clear, avian influenza is first and foremost an animal disease…The virus has not yet demonstrated the ability to pass directly from human to human and it is not clear at this time if this avian influenza virus will ever mutate to allow for a human pandemic. But the potential does exist. As such, it is very important that we pursue a sincere yet cautious approach in preparing to address potential outbreaks both here and abroad.”

Describing the funds recently requested by President Bush to intensify surveillance and provide assistance to avian influenza-stricken countries as extremely important, Ron DeHaven, administrator of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), testified that highly pathogenic (“high path”) avian influenza has been found in U.S. poultry three times: 1924, 1983 and 2004.

“The 1983 outbreak was the largest, ultimately resulting in the destruction of 17 million birds in Pennsylvania and Virginia before that virus was finally contained and eradicated,” said DeHaven. “By contrast, an isolated (high path) incident in a flock of 6,600 birds in Texas was quickly found and eradicated in 2004. There were no reports of human health problems in connection with any of those outbreaks.”

To keep the country avian influenza-free, “APHIS' Smuggling, Interdiction, and Trade Compliance teams, as well as our colleagues with the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection, have been alerted and are vigilantly on the lookout for any poultry or poultry products that might be smuggled into the United States from any affected countries.”

At the same time, the U.S. Department of the Interior — tasked with managing wildlife, including migratory birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, on 500 million acres — has been “strategically sampling migratory birds for (avian influenza) in the Pacific flyway…These efforts complement a series of ongoing avian influenza studies being conducted…in Alaska where birds that regularly migrate between Asia and North America are known to congregate.”

To date, after seven years and 12,000 tested samples, no evidence of high path avian influenza has been found in Alaska.

As for the potential for a flu pandemic, Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), brought the committee sobering analysis. While unable to predict severity or impact of a pandemic from the current avian influenza virus (H5N1) or another in the future, “modeling studies suggest that, in the absence of any control measures, a ‘medium-level’ pandemic in which 15 percent to 35 percent of the U.S. population develops influenza could result in 89,000 to 207,000 deaths, between 314,000 and 734,000 hospitalizations, 18 million to 42 million outpatient visits, and another 20 million to 47 million sick people. The associated economic impact in our country alone could range between $71.3 billion and $166.5 billion. A more severe pandemic, as happened in 1918, could have a much greater impact.”

Further, said Gerberding, a pandemic “could occur anytime during the year and could last much longer than typical seasonal influenza, with repeated waves of infection that could occur over one or two years. The capacity to intervene and prevent or control transmission of the virus once it gains the ability to be transmitted from person to person will be extremely limited.”

But, again, such deadly possibilities have faced the world for decades. And more recently, U.S. poultry operations have stepped up efforts to prevent their industry from having a hand in any such outbreaks.

In stark contrast to most enclosed-house, U.S. poultry operations, poultry production in much of Asia involves small farms, and/or “free roaming backyard or village poultry of mixed species that come in frequent and close contact with people,” said Don Waldrip.

Waldrip, director of health services at Wayne Farms, a Georgia-based poultry operation with additional facilities in Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and North Carolina, said the virus is present in wild birds, “especially waterfowl, and there is often a commingling of several domestic and wild avian species. Live bird markets are popular in most Asian countries, and these markets create almost perfect conditions for the perpetuation of avian influenza viruses.”

And avian influenza isn't spread at the dinner table.

Waldrip told the committee that even if avian influenza should ever be present, “there's no danger of acquiring flu from cooked food. Viruses are destroyed by the heat of normal cooking.”

Echoing Wyrick's comments, Gretta Irwin, executive director of the Iowa Turkey Federation, said turkey producers and processors had been concerned with avian influenza “long before it started making headlines. For our industry, avian influenza poses a triple threat: it threatens the health of the turkeys we raise, it threatens the economic livelihood of processors and the family farmers who grow birds for them, and it threatens to create a negative public health perception about our products.”

Encouraging increased surveillance of live bird markets in the United States, Irwin also expressed dismay that of the $7 billion called for by President Bush to deal with avian influenza, less than $100 million is targeted for USDA. USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) “includes some of the world's foremost experts on avian influenze, and Congress should make sure their programs are fully funded and that their facilities are modern, up-to-date and able to conduct the most sensitive research…The United States should take the lead in uniting the world in fighting avian influenza in poultry. Too often, avian influenza has become a tool in trade battles, and this distracts from efforts to control the disease globally.”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com