US gears up for possible bird flu outbreak

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

The Bush administration today published plans to prevent an
outbreak of avian influenza in the US, a day after the agriculture
secretary forecast that the disease would show up in migratory
birds later this year.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reported that recent avian influenza outbreaks in Europe, the Middle East and Africa have caused dramatic swings in poultry consumption, increased trade bans and sharp price declines. The UN agency expects poultry consumption shocks this year in many countries.

In the US, export prices for broiler cuts have dropped by 13 per cent as a result of declining shipments to Eastern Europe and Central Asia in November and December, according The fall follows a price rise to record levels in October, according to the FAO report.

The US department of agriculture (USDA) yesterday published a plan to step up monitoring of wild birds in a bid to ensure that an early warning system would help keep the disease from spreading to domestic poultry, sparking a disaster for the industry.

"We are closely monitoring the rapid spread of the H5N1 virus overseas, and we now believe it is likely that we will detect it within our borders in the United States,"​ stated agriculture secretary Mike Johanns in announcing the plan.

The US poultry industry has watched with concern as consumer consumption has plunged in Europe with the spread of the virus throughout that continent.

The US poultry sector is a $29 billion industry. Johanns said the US industry is aware of the need to report on any sick or dead birds found within their stocks. The USDA will compensate producers for destroyed birds.

"So unlike what we have seen in some countries where producers are reluctant to report the virus because of economic loss, our producers know their loss will be covered if they call us,"​ he stated in a press conference. "If the virus does reach a commercial flock, we would quickly take action to eliminate the virus following a very, very detailed response plan."

If the H5N1 virus is found in a wild bird or a domestic flock the USDA would establish a quarantine area around the infected birds and restrict movement into and out of that area. The affected birds would be destroyed and the area disinfected. Testing would be done throughout the region to ensure the virus did not spread.

The US has the capability to run as many as 18,000 tests for the virus per day. The USDA is also prepared to protect healthy birds outside a quarantine area with 40 million bird vaccines stockpiled and additional 70 million in production.

"A steady erosion of previously expected gains in per caput poultry consumption will likely push down global poultry consumption in 2006, currently estimated at 81.8 million tonnes, nearly three million tonnes lower than the previous 2006 estimate of 84.6 million tonnes,"​ stated FAO commodity specialist Nancy Morgan.

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