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Lethal Outbreak Threatens Poultry

Newcastle disease has spread rapidly in the Southland since September. More than 6,000 infected birds have been destroyed.

October 23, 2002|Eric Malnic | Times Staff Writer

An outbreak of Newcastle disease in Southern California is threatening the state's $2.5-billion poultry and egg industry, state officials said Tuesday.

The outbreak, which was discovered Sept. 27 in a backyard flock of chickens in Compton, has spread rapidly through Los Angeles and Riverside counties, the state Department of Food and Agriculture said.

About 70 backyard flocks in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties have been quarantined, and more than 6,500 chickens, turkeys, ducks and pet birds have been destroyed in an effort to curb the outbreak. Newcastle disease, though lethal to all birds, does not affect humans and poses no public health threat.

Thus far, no commercial flocks have been infected. But Leticia Rio, a spokeswoman for the agriculture department, warned that the viral disease, which hammered California's poultry industry in the early 1970s, could continue to spread.

"It's a huge concern to our industry," said Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation, an industry group representing most of the state's major producers, including Foster Farms and Zacky Farms. "We are already being affected, because foreign nations, worried about Newcastle, are starting to cut off their imports from the United States."

The outbreak comes at a particularly worrisome time for the turkey industry.

"They usually do 40% of their business between now and Christmas," Mattos said.

California is one of the largest poultry states, producing about 250 million chickens, 18 million turkeys, several million ducks and almost a million squab every year, Mattos said.

Most of the poultry producers are in the northern San Joaquin Valley, but there are major egg producers in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

A statewide outbreak of Newcastle disease 30 years ago spread to commercial flocks and forced the destruction of more than 11 million birds. It took two years to eradicate the disease, at a cost of more than $50 million.

The source of the current outbreak is unknown, but Rios said it could have started with the illegal importation of birds such as fighting cocks and protected species of parrots.

The disease usually spreads bird to bird, through contact with contaminated feces, feed, cages and other materials. Humans can serve as carriers.

More than 150 state and federal inspectors have fanned out through Southern California since the outbreak began, testing flocks of every size and ordering quarantines and the destruction of any infected birds.

The agriculture department has set up a hotline to provide information on the disease and accept reports on possible bird infections. The number is (800) 491-1899.

Mattos said poultry and egg producers are taking exceptional steps to keep the disease from their flocks.

"There's big bio-security," he said. "Visitors aren't being allowed, because they can be carrying the infection in on their clothing and shoes. The workers have to wear coveralls and boots that are sprayed with disinfectant before they enter the buildings [housing the flocks].

"We can't afford to let this disease get to our commercial flocks."

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