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U.S. Poultry Producers Stress Defenses to Keep Out Bird Flu

Unlike in Asia, flocks are kept indoors, away from wild birds that could spread the illness.

November 14, 2005|Steve Karnowski | Associated Press

SAUK CENTRE, Minn. — The sign outside Rick Klaphake's turkey farm reads: "Absolutely no trespassing -- disease control."

The 12,000 turkey hens gobbling away in one of his 500-foot-long barns were living out the final days of their 18-week lives. But not because of bird flu. Most of them will grace holiday dining tables starting with Thanksgiving next week.

Poultry growers like Klaphake, as well as government and industry officials, say they're confident the U.S. poultry industry is safe from dangerous strains of bird flu, such as H5N1, that have ravaged poultry in Asia and spread to parts of Europe. The biggest reason: the animals are kept in, and people and wild birds are kept out.

Klaphake's operation is typical for turkey farms in Minnesota, the country's top turkey-producing state. And across the country, top chicken producers follow similar strategies for keeping their flocks free of disease.

On Klaphake's farm near Sauk Centre, turkeys have little human contact. Few visitors are allowed. Farm employees shower and change clothes before entering the barns, and wear disposable plastic booties to avoid tracking in germs. Automated systems feed the turkeys.

Although the sides of the barn open to allow fresh air in, screens keep out migratory birds that could carry in bird flu. Exterminators make monthly visits to control rodents that might track in the virus.

The turkeys are moved into the barns when they're 1 day old and don't leave until they're trucked off to a processing plant. They're watched closely for signs of illness, and blood samples from every flock are tested at the plant, said Klaphake, the president of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Assn.

It's all very different from the way poultry is raised in Asia, where chickens and ducks run loose and live close to people and other livestock, and are sold live in open-air markets where they can infect each other and possibly people.

As in the $3-billion turkey industry, almost all U.S. chicken comes from big producers such as Tyson Foods Inc. and Perdue Farms Inc. that control everything from hatching chicks to marketing the finished products.

Bird flu is nothing new to these producers.

The viruses come in two groups: the highly pathogenic strains, which are more deadly, and the less pathogenic, which cause less serious illnesses. The virus causing the most concern for birds and people in Asia, H5N1, is highly pathogenic.

It is the milder strains that turn up often in the U.S. Producers have tests to spot them, and those tests will also detect the more dangerous forms, said Dale Lauer, director of Minnesota's poultry testing lab.

Bird flu typically spreads from bird to bird through contact with their droppings or respiratory secretions. What worries health officials is that a dangerous strain could mutate into a version that could easily spread from human to human and kill millions of people.

The data show that bird flu among turkeys dropped dramatically as producers switched to confinement from open-range operations, Lauer said.

But critics of large-scale farming aren't sold on what the big producers are doing. Dr. Michael Greger, director of public health and animal agriculture for the Humane Society of the United States, said that confinement actually added to the danger of a global pandemic.

"I think they're overconfident in their ability to keep these bugs out," Greger said. "You can do your best, but unfortunately these bugs still get inside."

Having many hosts packed into small spaces gives flu viruses more opportunities to mutate, he said. On top of that, he said, the stress of living "beak to beak" weakens birds' immune systems.

The solution, Greger said, is to change the way poultry is raised, reducing stresses on the birds by giving them more space, cleaner conditions and protected access to the outdoors, plus better genetics, so they're better able to fight off infections.

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