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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

A Virus Stalks the Henhouse

Biosecurity and locked gates are facts of life at California's chicken farms, where a single case of bird flu could trigger a catastrophe.

December 13, 2005|Charles Piller | Times Staff Writer

VERNALIS, Calif. — Andrew Carlson cupped a day-old chick in his palm as a sea of 25,000 yellow fluff balls peeped and pecked around him.

Placing the chick on the ground, he checked automated food and temperature controls in the cavernous henhouse west of Modesto, then returned to his truck and unzipped his full-body biosecurity suit.

Instinctively, Carlson reached for a bottle in the door pocket, squirted a dollop of clear gel into his calloused hand and rubbed it in.

"Farmers using hand sanitizers," he said. "Crazy, huh?"

In the age of bird flu, the ideal poultry or egg farm would be more controlled than a prison, more sanitary than a hospital and more remote than a desert island.

Reality is not far off. The new tools of the trade are locked gates, visitor logs and antiviral truck washes. Failure to wear biosecurity gear is a firing offense.

Like family doctors, Carlson's ranch managers swab inside chicken beaks and hindquarters each week to collect lab samples as the birds squirm and squawk like children.

A single diseased bird milling around a crowded poultry barn or sneezing inside a cage at a large egg farm could set off a chain reaction that wipes out millions of others.

It has already happened in Asia, where more than 120 million birds have died or been culled due to the spread of the H5N1 avian influenza virus. Now, the virus has spread to Europe and Siberia, and U.S. farmers are bracing for the possibility that it will arrive in North America.

Carlson, 25, and his wife, Theresa, pregnant with their first child, live on the farm he grew up on in a tiny red house that belonged to his late grandfather.

He never considered straying from the family business, Central Coast Fryer Farms, which produces about 10 million chickens a year on 17 ranches.

He keeps his grandfather's hours, rising by 3:30 a.m. and returning home at 6:30 p.m. or later.

In most other ways, his grandfather wouldn't recognize Carlson's approach to chicken farming.

He majored in law and society at UC Santa Barbara and studied macroeconomics at Sweden's Lund University to understand global agriculture.

When he returned as his company's chief operating officer three years ago, Carlson realized that his studies neglected the key topic in modern poultry and egg farming: biology.

"When you grow up on a ranch, you know about predators -- coyotes and such. But I didn't imagine the main predator would be like this," he said, indicating a microscopic speck between thumb and forefinger. "A virus."


Carlson meets friends every morning for a predawn meal at the Farmers' Den cafe in Crows Landing, a quarter of a mile from his home, as his dad has done for nearly 50 years. The owner hides a key for regulars so they can put on coffee if they arrive before 4 a.m.

Some co-workers and friends make the 20-mile drive from Modesto for the morning ritual, to catch up on chickens, wives and how the high school football team is doing.

After breakfast, the friends avoid each other like the plague. The easy days of neighbors stopping by to swap stories or tools are long gone.

"I tell farmers, 'Don't let anyone near your birds,' " said Carol Cardona, a poultry veterinarian with UC Davis. "Friendship is a risk factor for disease."

Sick birds sneeze and cough just like people. But sick birds don't travel. People spread the viruses from farm to farm. That's why ranchers forbid farmhands to visit other farms or live bird markets, or to own pet birds.

Merlyn Garber, who owns a small egg farm in Salida, a few miles northwest of Modesto, installed an antiseptic truck wash when a less dangerous form of bird flu than the H5N1 strain hit the Central Valley in 2002.

Asked whether his neighbors have done likewise, he shrugged: "I don't know, because I don't visit them."

Farmers have been careful about biosecurity for decades, but their rude awakening came in September 2002, when exotic Newcastle disease, a flu-like illness that kills chickens and can cause eye infections in people, swept through Southern California.

In a panic to stop the infection, one San Diego County egg rancher dumped thousands of sick birds into a wood chipper, raising the ire of animal-welfare officials. The outbreak took nine months to eradicate at a cost of more than $160 million.

If the virus had moved north, the damage could have been catastrophic. More than 80% of the state's $2.5-billion poultry and egg industry is crowded into a strip of the Central Valley between Highway 99 and Interstate 5, according to the California Poultry Federation.

Carlson was 22, fresh out of college and running a poultry company with dozens of employees when the biggest agricultural-disease crisis California had seen in decades struck the Southland.

"If Newcastle was to get introduced here, the way the wind whips through the valley, it could have taken off like wildfire," he said. "After going through that, few other things would scare me."

Carlson still dreams about it. "Biosecurity has become clear-and-away the No. 1 concern," he said.

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