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U.S. Eases Bar on Poultry as Virus Threat Subsides

In the Southland, a quarantine to avert the spread of exotic Newcastle disease is reduced to 22 farms.

August 05, 2003|Melinda Fulmer | Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Department of Agriculture lifted quarantines Monday on poultry shipments in three Southwestern states and in most of California, saying that a deadly poultry virus appears to be under control.

Exotic Newcastle disease, which kills birds but does not pose a threat to humans, spread rapidly across Southern California and several other states since its discovery in Compton last fall.

To wipe out the disease, a strict quarantine was imposed, and more than 3 million birds were destroyed in Southern California and a smaller number in other states.

"We think we are close to eradicating" exotic Newcastle disease, said Leticia Rico, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

In California, the quarantine area was reduced Monday to 22 farms in parts of Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino and San Diego counties.

Farms and backyard flocks in these areas still must submit to weekly monitoring and cannot move their birds or related poultry products unless given special permission from the state.

But because no California birds have been found with the virus since May, state officials are becoming increasingly confident that the disease has been eliminated.

"We are estimating that the balance of the quarantine could be released by late August," Rico said.

The USDA also lifted quarantines that restricted the movement of birds in Arizona, Nevada and Texas.

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said Monday that the Newcastle virus has been eliminated from flocks in most of the U.S. She attributed its quick containment to the efforts of a state and federal task force organized after a state of emergency was declared in California by Gov. Gray Davis in January.

"I commend the efforts of state and federal officials who have worked so hard to manage this disease," Veneman said in a statement. "This is an example of what the ... partnership can accomplish in animal disease eradication."

The last outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease, in 1971, caused the destruction of 12 million birds at a cost of $56 million.

This time, the disease has cost the government $188 million to contain.

An investigation has not yet pinpointed the cause of the disease, but state officials and egg farmers suspect that farm workers who owned fighting roosters spread the disease to commercial egg farms on their clothing, hands and automobile tires.

The disease has been particularly devastating to California's struggling egg industry, much of which is in Southern California.

Most of the 3 million birds that were destroyed were on farms in San Bernardino, Riverside, San Diego and Ventura counties.

Although many large farms are beginning to restock their hens -- a process that could take a couple of years -- some smaller farms are not replacing lost flocks, said Paul Bahan, president of AAA Egg Farms in Nuevo.

"I know a number of farms that are not going to be repopulated," Bahan said.

And those that do restock their hens will have to wait before those birds start laying enough eggs, he said. "It's going to take awhile before they get back up to full production."

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