As Del. continues to test for bird flu, Md. seeks help

Restaurant and Catering IndustryBird FluLivestock FarmingEconomy, Business and FinanceArts and CultureSussex County (Delaware)

Delaware officials said they found no new cases of the potentially devastating avian influenza yesterday - but that was little comfort to farmers in the poultry-intensive Delmarva peninsula, who are isolating themselves in an effort to keep their livelihoods safe.

Also yesterday, Maryland's U.S. senators, Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, asked the nation's agriculture secretary for federal help containing what they called a "potentially catastrophic situation."

"Viruses don't recognize state lines," Mikulski said.

This is the first time avian flu has been detected in Delmarva's commercial chicken industry. Unlike the Asian strain, this version poses no health risk to humans, but it can be fatal to poultry. Delaware has killed about 85,000 chickens to keep the flu from spreading and mutating.

The state is also in the midst of testing more than 75 farms within six miles of Delaware's two infected operations, all of which have been quarantined as a precaution. Results came back negative yesterday for 10 chicken houses.

Nearly 577 million chickens were raised for meat along the Delmarva peninsula last year, a wholesale value of $1.5 billion. The industry is also a key purchaser of corn and soybeans; a half-billion dollars was spent last year on feed.

Sussex County, Del., is the top broiler chicken producer in the nation. Wicomico County in Maryland is 10th.

If the flu isn't quickly contained, Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner said, the ripple impact could be in the "billions" for Delmarva's economy, hitting not only poultry farmers and grain growers but retail operations that depend indirectly on the health of this bedrock industry.

"We are hoping to contain this problem, but it is [an] airborne disease," Minner said at a groundbreaking in Sussex County. "It can move without us doing anything. We can't control that. Everybody is working as hard as they can to stop this where it is today."

Changing routines

The first case was discovered on a small chicken operation Friday in Kent County, Del. Farms within two miles tested clean, but Tuesday the flu was found about five miles away on a Sussex County farm - baffling state officials, who see no connection between the pair.

Though the virus can move from bird to bird through the air, it can also be transmitted by clinging to people's clothes and equipment, making chicken growers re-evaluate their daily trips.

"This is like having a snowstorm that is going to last an indeterminate amount of time," said Maralene Givens, a Laurel, Del., chicken farmer who has stopped going to a health club, whose quilting group meetings have been canceled and whose husband no longer eats breakfast at a local truck stop.

"You are concerned about bringing it back," she said.

The trade group Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. urged farmers in the three-state peninsula to keep as many people as possible off their property - even deliverymen - and to stay away from places where poultry workers congregate, quite a trick in chicken country.

A foot-washing station sits at the entrance of the group's Georgetown, Del., office to catch any germs riding in on people's shoes. Any car leaving the University of Delaware Lasher Laboratory, which is helping test for the flu, gets a mandatory rinse with a high-pressure hose.

Even Carroll County - far afield from the crisis - is feeling the pinch because the Maryland Department of Agriculture has banned sales of live poultry, including the weekly event at the Westminster Livestock Auction.

'Emergency situation'

Eddie Johnson, Wicomico County's agricultural extension agent, spent yesterday canceling all farm meetings for the rest of the month, even 4-H, and is telling farmers not to go anywhere.

Essential trips - such as grocery shopping - should be bookended by showers and a change of clothes, he said.

"We're in an emergency situation," said Johnson, himself a chicken farmer. "The poultry industry is just too valuable to lose because people won't stay home."

'Very scary'

Sussex County chicken farmers Constance and Clifton Parker are following the recommended precautions as best they can, but they can't remain on the farm. Their home and their chicken houses are in different locations.

"This is a farming community," added Constance Parker, 51, who has more than 200,000 birds. "Wherever we go, it's a present danger. ... It's very scary."

Hobey Bauhan, president of the Virginia Poultry Federation, said farmers in the Shenandoah Valley took the same precautions when the avian flu hit there two years ago. The state had to destroy nearly 5 million poultry to wipe it out.

"It strikes fear in farmers that this avian influenza has reappeared on the East Coast," he said.

Local sales OK

Several restaurants and stores in Sussex County are relieved that locals are buying fowl as much as they ever did, even if the farmers who produce it aren't going anywhere.

"We fry a lot of chickens," said Gerald W. Hocker, who owns supermarkets in Ocean View and Clarksville.

Still, about a dozen countries - mostly in Asia, where avian flu is a frightening health risk - have banned poultry imports from Delaware or the entire United States. Minner, the Delaware governor, has urged the White House and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to press for an end to the bans.

The USDA is providing the American posts in those countries with information about the difference between the two avian flu strains, hoping that will help, said agency spokeswoman Julie Quick.

USDA officials have also offered containment advice and the testing expertise of the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa.

For the broiler capital of the country, which can't do much beyond sitting tight and waiting for test results, it's an anxious time of what-ifs.

"It could be devastating to our chicken growers and to our economy," said James W. Smith, owner of Smith's Family Restaurant in Georgetown, Del., which prepares chicken any way a customer wants it.

He noted: "It seems like everyone in Sussex County knows somebody or has a relative or friend that is in the chicken business."

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