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U.S. Farmers Prepare for Arrival of Asian Bird Flu

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. Today the Bush administration formally announced it is expanding efforts to track the deadly Asian bird flu virus, known as H5N1. Three cabinet secretaries from the Agriculture, Interior, and Health and Human Services Departments warned that the virus could arrive in the United States this year.

The government will test more wild birds, which have helped move bird flu around the world, and it is also stepping up efforts to help the North American poultry industry prepare for bird flu.

SIEGEL: The H5N1 virus has already done major economic harm to farmers in Asia, Europe and Africa. They've had to destroy tens of millions of birds. In this country, poultry is a 29 billion dollar a year industry. And farmers are rolling out plans to defend it against the virus.

To find out how these plans might work, NPR's John Nielsen recently visited two very different kinds of chicken farmers. His story begins in rural Maryland, near the entrance to a massive poultry farm.

JOHN NIELSEN reporting:

Long, low windowless buildings sit behind a great big chain link fence on the outskirts of Pocomoke, Maryland. Nobody gets past this fence without first pulling on all kinds of protective clothing: giant plastic booties, papery hairnets, and greenish jumpsuits that make you look like a surgeon walking into an operating room. The funny looking clothes are not designed to protect the visitors, however. According to the owner of the farm, it's the birds that need protection.

Mr. GARY PILCHARD (Owner, chicken farm): I'm Gary Pilchard and those are our chicken houses. Yes. It's a total capacity of 217,000 chickens, and it's right around a $1.3 million investment.

NIELSEN: Gary Pilchard grows chickens for Perdue Farms, a multinational chicken producer that sold 552 million chickens last year alone. Normally Pilchard doesn't let reporters come around, but today he's making an exception, so that he can talk about the work his industry is doing to get ready for the Asian bird flu.

Mr. PILCHARD: Out here on the farm where 99.9 percent of the folks get their chicken from, we're doing everything we can to make sure that, number one, we don't get avian influenza, and number two, if that happens that the consumer has no chance of it even reaching the food supply.

NIELSEN: Show me some of what you're doing.

Mr. PILCHARD: Let's walk in here.

NIELSEN: Pilchard opens up a door on one of the long, low buildings. Forty thousand 11-day-old chicks all seem to turn around and look at us at once, but not for very long. As a mechanical buzz kicks in, they charge off toward the feed troughs. Sensors follow almost every change that happens inside this brooding house, including changes in food and water consumption that might signal the onset of the bird flu. Pilchard himself keeps an eye peeled for chicks that seem to be acting funny.

Mr. PILCHARD: See how fast they move? You see them just move right away from us. When they don't move away from you, either they're really asleep or, you know, there may be a little issue. And you're going to have a few birds that don't live.

NIELSEN: Experts say an H5N1 outbreak here would kill more than just a couple of birds. They say Pilchard and other poultry farmers got a taste of the disaster that virus might bring four years ago. That's when a turkey farmer in nearby Virginia reported that his birds were acting listless. Tests showed that the turkeys were infected by a bird flu virus that's related to H5N1, but isn't nearly as dangerous to humans.

That turkey flock was killed immediately, but it wasn't soon enough. In just two weeks the 2002 outbreak spread to nearly 200 other farms. Uncertain of how the virus was spreading, farmers like Gary Pilchard locked their gates and waited, limiting contact with anything or anyone that might be carrying the virus.

Mr. PILCHARD: If we needed something, my wife would meet somebody away from home when she was at work and bring it home. I just didn't leave, you know. There wasn't any leaving. You know, you can't afford to.

NIELSEN: In the end farmers in the region had to kill of 5 million birds to control this outbreak. Researchers later concluding that trucks that hauled infected carcasses to landfills had helped spread the virus by spilling offal and infected blood. Pilchard says his industry learned a lot from that outbreak. For instance, to stop viruses from hitching rides on vehicles, every truck that enters or leaves Pilchard's farm now gets an antiseptic bath. Recently, a special power washing truck trailed a feed truck through his gate.

Mr. PILCHARD: Pressure washing truck got here, he washed himself, then he washed the feed trucks going on the farm, totally washed them, undercarriage and everything. The truck unloaded the feed, he totally pressure washed them before they left the farm.

NIELSEN: Pilchard says his industry has also begun testing every flock that leaves his farm for signs of the bird flu. And if one of those tests were to turn up evidence of the H5N1 virus, here's what would happen. First, every poultry flock within two miles of Pilchard's farm would be killed on the spot.

Then, to keep the virus from spreading, the birds' carcasses would either be incinerated on sight or pushed into giant compost piles in the center of their brooding houses. Those piles generate a lot of heat.

Mr. PILCHARD: And heat kills the virus. And that's another big key in quarantining this anywhere, you know. Whether it's the United States or where they're currently having issues.

NIELSEN: These new safety programs could be hard to enforce, but Pilchard thinks they'll stick. Given the huge amounts of money at stake, he says he'd rat out his best friends if they didn't get with the program.

Mr. PILCHARD: In a heartbeat. I'm sorry. I don't care what he's doing. If he's doing something that can endanger my livelihood, my family's livelihood, and my farm, there is no way.

NIELSEN: Pilchard and his colleagues at Perdue say American poultry firms have a big advantage in the fight to keep the H5N1 virus at bay, because a handful of companies control the entire production process in this country they'll be able to react to outbreaks much more quickly and efficiently. As a result, if this virus does take hold, industry representatives think it will first hit smaller, independent farms. Like this one, just a few hours from Gary Pilchard.

Mr. BRETT GROHSGAL (Even' Star Organic Farm): I'm Brett Grohsgal of Even' Star Organic Farm in Lexington Park, Maryland, and we're a rather large vegetable farm and we have between 400 and 600 laying chickens.

NIELSEN: Brett Grohsgal's farm looks nothing like the Pilchard operation. His chickens are fully-grown and they all run free. When they're not carousing out in nearby fields they're laying eggs and squawking in the corner of a barn that looks like it's about to fall down. Sun and wind pour through holes in the roof and the side of the building. Theoretically that could make it easier for these birds to get infected. But Grohsgal says it wasn't his kind of farm that got flattened by the 2002 outbreak of avian flu.

Mr. GROHSGAL: If I recall it wasn't the free-range people that got hit. If I recall correctly it was the big houses.

NIELSEN: Grohsgal says he dearly hopes the anti-bird flu programs launched by the big poultry firms prove successful. But he worries that if the H5N1 virus does infect one of the big chicken farms it will have found a place where it can thrive.

Mr. GROHSGAL: The American Farm and Meat Industry is really based on a very old USDA premise of bring food to the masses at a very cheap price. Part of the way that's been done is by introducing risk into how we raise livestock.

NIELSEN: The risk is that the avian influenza virus he calls A.I. will go crazy in a house containing tens of thousands of identical chickens. Tests that take a day or two to catch this virus may be too slow, he adds.

Mr. GROHSGAL: When A.I. comes it will come fast and furious and I'm not sure what everyone's "security" is going to mean with such a fast moving packaging.

NIELSEN: Brett Grohsgal wants to make it clear that he's taking all of the precautions suggested by the big houses. For example, visiting trucks at his farm get their tires bleached. And if the H5N1 virus breaks out near the farm he shares with his wife and child, he'll move immediately, killing and burning all of his chickens.

Mr. GROHSGAL: And I love these birds. If H5N1 crops its heads within the five surrounding counties, any farm within five surrounding counties, there won't be a chicken on our farm. And that's done because I love my daughter.

NIELSEN: Grohsgal knows that so far the vast majority of people killed by the H5N1 virus have been people who work and live near chickens. John Nielsen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Nielsen
John Nielsen covers environmental issues for NPR. His reports air regularly on NPR's award-winning news magazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition. He also prepares documentaries for the NPR/National Geographic Radio Expeditions series, which is heard regularly on Morning Edition. Nielsen also occasionally serves as the substitute host for several NPR News programs.