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Bird Flu Threat Shuts Live Markets

Times Staff Writer

In this city without zoning laws, people aren’t surprised by the sight of a live-chicken market alongside a church and an apartment complex. What has been turning heads here lately, however, are the empty coops, locked iron gates and hand-printed signs that turned customers away last week.

“We’re sorry no chickens today,” read one cardboard notice in front of the Lieu Gia Trang II market.

The store was one of four live-poultry establishments in Houston closed after health authorities discovered a virulent strain of avian flu at a supplier’s farm in southeast Texas. Although the virus -- which has not been seen in the U.S. for two decades -- is not known to spread from birds to humans, it is highly contagious and lethal to poultry.

The infected bird farm, located in Gonzales County east of San Antonio, has been shut down and quarantined. State and federal workers are testing every flock within a 10-mile radius, but so far no more diseased chickens have been found, said Bob Hillman, state veterinarian and executive director of the Texas Animal Health Commission.

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“I am hopeful this can be a short-lived effort.” he said. “Indications so far have been very positive. The work crews are not seeing sick birds. We hope this trend continues.”

Even so, importers of U.S. poultry are taking no chances. Last week, South Korea and the 15-nation European Union banned all poultry from the United States, while Mexico banned most such imports. Earlier this month, Russia, China and other major importers closed their doors to U.S. poultry after a less-potent form of bird flu turned up in Delaware and Pennsylvania.

The trade bans were a blow to the chicken industry in several parts of Texas, which is the nation’s sixth-largest poultry producer, with $150 million in annual exports.

And long-term international bans could devastate Texas growers, said James Grimm, executive vice president of the Texas Poultry Federation, a statewide industry trade group. “Fifteen percent of the poultry in Texas is exported. If the bans go on for a long time, that would create a lot of havoc in the industry,” he said.

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The last few months have not been stellar ones for Texas ranchers. First there was the beef import ban prompted by fears of mad cow disease. Now it’s the chickens.

But animal producers will absorb the hits and go on, said Beverly Boyd, a spokeswoman at the Texas Department of Agriculture.

“We have seen no lack of consumer confidence; people are buying and consuming beef,” she said. “For the poultry, this is one chicken house that was affected. Nothing else has shown up. It was a very insignificant amount of chicken when you look at Texas poultry as a whole. It doesn’t affect the meat or eggs or humans. It’s a safe food supply.”

The avian flu found in Texas is not the same strain that has killed at least 22 people in Asia, but health authorities worry that the virus could mutate into a form that affects humans. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta is monitoring farmers and workers who came into contact with the infected birds. So far, no one appears to have contracted the virus, Hillman said.

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The source of the virus found in Gonzales County remains elusive.

“Tracking that down will be tough,” said Doug Smith, a Harris County agriculture extension agent. “It could very well have come from migratory water fowl that leave their fecal matter. You can’t really monitor every migratory bird that comes in and out like that.”

Health officials won’t reveal the name of the infected Texas farm, but say it is a small commercial operation that primarily supplies live-bird markets. About 300 of the farmer’s chickens died before state workers put down the entire flock of 6,600 birds a week ago.

If left unchecked, the virus can decimate a large flock in two weeks, Smith said. “It spreads through the air in live birds, and it’s also spread by fecal matter. So if it’s on shoes, egg flats or equipment, it can be spread that way. You can have live birds one day and dead birds the next. It’s pretty potent,” he said.

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Because it is not known which live-poultry markets here were exposed to the sick birds from Gonzales, all four stores -- which are within a mile of one another-- will remain closed for at least another week as state workers disinfect the grounds. The owners agreed to kill hundreds of chickens and 20 ducks that might have been infected by the disease.

At the Lieu Gia Trang II market last week, the sound of squawking chickens was replaced by the roar of portable generators spewing soapy disinfectant. Health department employees in light blue jumpsuits power-washed every surface, while a Vietnamese store employee silently watched. Noticing a few people huddled by the locked gates, the man walked toward them, sidestepping puddles of bubbles and water.

The market, which caters to Asian customers who prefer freshly slaughtered poultry, soon will reopen for business, he said.

“The cleaning is for protection, only protection so we don’t get sued,” said the man, who would not give his name. “It is safe. Come back later. We have good chickens. Come back, please.”

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