WASHINGTON — — Seeking to reassure people that chicken is safe to eat, companies that raise chickens said Thursday they will test every flock for bird flu before the birds are slaughtered.
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Companies that account for more than 90 percent of the nearly 10 billion chickens produced in 2005 in the U.S. have signed up for the testing program and said it expects more to follow, according to the National Chicken Council, a trade group that represents producers.
“We just want to assure people of the safety of the food supply,” council spokesman Richard Lobb said.
Consumption of chicken in the U.S. has held steady despite worries about a bird flu strain that has infected millions of birds throughout Asia and parts of Europe and has killed 74 people.
The average person in the U.S. ate 85 pounds of chicken last year, compared with 84 pounds in 2004, according to the Agriculture Department.
Chicken prices at the grocery store have dropped in recent months, mostly because production is up and exports are down, said David Harvey, a poultry analyst for the department’s Economic Research Service.
The council did not say what companies are participating, although Lobb said, “Practically all the big ones are in it.” Tyson Foods Inc. has more than one-quarter of the market, followed by Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., Gold Kist Inc. and Perdue Farms Inc.
Tyson has been testing for bird flu and expanded efforts last fall, spokesman Gary Mickelson said. The company now tests all of its flocks and conducts 15,000 tests each week, he said. Pilgrim’s Pride said Thursday it was joining in the testing program.
Lobb said many companies already are testing ahead of the program’s start on Jan. 16. The program is voluntary. Companies will cover the costs; the council said it does not have cost estimates.
Georgia-based Fieldale Farms will spend “couple hundred thousand dollars a year,” on testing, executive vice president Tom Hensley said.
“It’s a big number to a little chicken company in Georgia, but it’s worth every cent,” Hensley said. Fieldale started the tests last month.
The plan is for 11 birds to be tested from each chicken flock, or farm. The council said the average flock has 55,000 to 60,000 chickens and that there are an estimated 150,000 flocks produced year. That would mean more than 1.6 million chickens would be tested.
Blood test samples from 11 birds would provide a confidence level of 95 percent of detecting an infection in a flock where 25 percent of birds are infected, said a government expert, Andrew R. Rhorer. He heads the department’s National Poultry Improvement Plan, which focuses on disease prevention.
A consumer group said the testing, while a good first step, should be required of every company that raises chickens.
“For the industry to step up like this and start the testing program is a very important improvement,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “But it’s critical that USDA ensure that all chicken producers are complying with the same requirements.”
She urged wider testing of birds, saying “a 99 percent confidence level would be better.”
Samples will be collected on farms and tested at state or industry-certified laboratories.
If testing turns up the most virulent form, or any H5 or H7 strain that can mutate into virulent forms, and results are confirmed by the department’s premier lab, in Ames, Iowa, the flock will be destroyed on the farm, Lobb said. None of the birds from the affected farm will enter the food chain, the council said.
The virulent form of bird flu in Asia has not been found in the U.S. and is only now spreading into Eastern Europe. Authorities there say that cooking kills the virus. Health officials in the U.S. say it is safe to eat poultry that is properly handled and cooked.
Bird flu can spread to chickens, ducks, turkeys and other domestic birds through direct contact with infected waterfowl or other poultry, or contact with contaminated cages, egg crates, water or feed, according to the department. Even the dirt or manure on shoes, clothing or tires can be tracked from one farm to another and transmit the virus.
In bird flu outbreaks among poultry, anywhere from 90 percent to 100 percent of the birds can die from infection. In outbreaks, poultry farms typically are quarantined and the birds slaughtered.
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