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Chicken Disease Prompts Davis to Declare State of Emergency

U.S. government joins in declaration as virus threatens California's poultry industry.

January 09, 2003|Melinda Fulmer | Times Staff Writer

The federal government and Gov. Gray Davis both declared a state of emergency Wednesday in Southern California because of an outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease, a deadly avian virus that is threatening the state's $3-billion poultry business.

The declarations won't provide much if any additional compensation for affected chicken farms. But they help provide a way for state and federal agencies to pool their staff and equipment more quickly and bypass government contracting rules to help control the fast-spreading infection and dispose of birds.

About 650 people have been assigned from different agencies to work on eradicating the disease.

During the last several weeks, state officials have called for the destruction of about 1.2 million chickens to contain the outbreak, which was first discovered in backyard chicken flocks in Compton in September.

California already has agreed to compensate farmers $2 to $5 for each bird destroyed.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, meanwhile, expanded the quarantine area for the disease to include Santa Barbara and Imperial counties, although no evidence of disease has been found in either region. Chickens in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Orange counties were quarantined in late December.

"The purpose is to create a buffer zone around Newcastle disease-infected sites," USDA spokesman Larry Hawkins told Associated Press. "It provides additional security against the spread of the disease."

The virus spreads quickly among birds but is harmless to humans. Farms under quarantine cannot move live birds and poultry products out of the zone, although sanitized eggs can be distributed as normal. Riverside County is the state's No. 1 egg producer.

The measures also are designed to prevent the disease from spreading north to the state's Central Valley, where the bulk of the poultry industry is concentrated.

"Exotic Newcastle disease is a devastating bird illness that has the potential to wipe out the poultry industry," Davis said in a statement from Sacramento.

So far, the disease has not affected supplies of poultry or eggs, and supermarket prices have remained stable.

A statewide outbreak of the disease in 1971 prompted the destruction of nearly 12 million chickens at a cost of $56 million.

The two emergency declarations came a day after the Riverside and San Bernardino county boards of supervisors asked the governor and President Bush to declare emergencies.

The state-of-emergency declaration was a necessary first step for the state to get federal funds.

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