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Bird flu could cost U.S. poultry market

A U.S. outbreak of bird flu could cost poultry producers “hundreds of millions” of dollars in lost trade, but scientists said Tuesday that even if the deadly H5N1 strain is discovered it would still be safe for U.S. consumers to eat chicken.
/ Source: Reuters

A U.S. outbreak of bird flu could cost poultry producers “hundreds of millions” of dollars in lost trade, but scientists said Tuesday that even if the deadly H5N1 strain is discovered it would still be safe for U.S. consumers to eat chicken.

“It will never reach your dinner table,” said Nathaniel Tablante, a poultry veterinarian at the University of Maryland.

“The virus is so heat sensitive that if it gets to your kitchen, you (could) cook the chicken anyway. It’s still safe to eat,” he said.

The H5N1 strain of avian influenza is known to have killed 64 people in four Asian countries and forced some 150 million birds worldwide to be destroyed.

Bird flu recently spread to Eastern Europe and is expected to move into the Middle East and Africa. Some experts believe that the H5N1 virus could mutate just enough to allow it to spread easily from human to human, potentially killing millions of people.

Scientists from universities in Virginia and Maryland downplayed the risk of the disease ever reaching the United States at a briefing on avian influenza.

“Getting hit by avian influenza in a live bird is the same as (a human) getting hit by lightning,” said Daniel Perez, an avian influenza researcher at the University of Maryland. “I’m not saying it would never happen, but it’s very, very unlikely.”

The United States is the world’s largest producer and exporter of poultry meat, with chicken, turkey and duck production valued at about $23 billion annually.

Last year more than one million birds were tested for avian influenza in the United States, many before they were exported, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. It is common for mild and low pathogenic strains of bird flu, which are not harmful to humans, to appear in the United States and other countries.

In countries where the deadly H5N1 strain has been discovered, consumption of chicken has dropped dramatically and exports virtually halted.

The USDA has already taken precautions, banning imports of live birds and eggs from infected countries and requiring all imported birds to be quarantined and tested for the virus before entering the country.

“(U.S. poultry) producers are very much aware they need to keep confidence in their product,” said Francois Elvinger, a veterinary epidemiologist at Virginia Tech. He said many poultry growers have boosted sanitation and biosecurity efforts in recent years.

Elvinger estimated that finding H5N1 in the United States could cost the industry “hundreds of millions of dollars” and ”cut off for some period of time” exports of poultry and poultry products.

While the United States has not reported the deadly H5N1 virus, President Bush asked Congress earlier this month for $7.1 billion in emergency federal funding to build stockpiles of drugs and vaccines and to monitor both live bird markets and flyways where wild birds migrate.

The World Bank estimated Monday that a bird flu pandemic lasting a year could cost the global economy up to $800 billion.