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U.S. poultry farms well-armed against bird flu

What's being done to protect the nation's poultry from the deadly avian flu virus? NBC's Tom Costello visits a farm in Harrisonburg, Va.

In an idyllic corner of Virginia, Charles Horn’s poultry farm is home, at any one time, to 150,000 chickens. But to see them, you've got to get past Horn. And to do that, you must first don a bio-security suit complete with plastic boots, protective coveralls, a hair net and hand sanitizer.

It’s all part of the precautions to guard against disease getting anywhere near Horn's livelihood.

Before walking into his chicken house, you must first step into the chlorine Horn says he uses for "disinfecting our shoes in case you pick up something in the driveway."

He is deadly serious about protecting the 1 million chickens he raises each year.

"If we get avian flu on these farms or in my flock of chickens and have to go out of business for three months or six months, my income stops and all of my expenses stay here," he says.

The precautions have been around for nearly two decades and now are standard practice in a $50 billion industry. There are some 35,000 poultry farms in the United States. The vast majority are family farms, exclusively supplying the companies that put chicken on America's dinner tables.

Nearly every chicken grown for consumption is raised in sealed, climate-controlled houses. The risk of exposure to avian flu is said to be nearly zero. The real threat is from migratory birds potentially spreading the disease to waterfowl and chickens that roam free on backyard farms, which is why California researchers are closely watching the duck and pheasant hunt this year, collecting samples and on guard against avian flu.

Walter Boyce is a wildlife health expert with the University of California-Davis Wildlife Health Center. 

"I want to learn as much as we can about how these viruses are moving through wild birds," he says, "and what might make these viruses jump from wild birds into poultry or people or other species."

So far, there is no sign of the H5N1 avian flu virus in North America. But, from watching the hunt to securing the nation's poultry supply, there is an all-out push to guard against the killer.