Poultry Industry Criticizes Federal Avian Flu Planning

April 21, 2006

The federal government could learn a thing or two from the Delaware- Maryland-Virginia area poultry industry about how to prepare for an outbreak of avian flu, according to the Delmarva industry officials.

In a meeting called by U.S. Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., industry officials took exception with a draft avian flu response plan developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Delaware agriculture secretary Michael Scuse complained that the USDA has received little input from Delaware and other states that have dealt with recent avian flu outbreaks.

“This doesn’t mean anything to us,” Scuse said, holding up a copy of the USDA plan. “We’re years ahead of this.”

Jack Gelb Jr., chairman of the Department of Animal and Food Sciences at the University of Delaware, said UD already offers cutting-edge surveillance technology to protect commercial flocks of broiler chickens and is in the forefront of research in developing disease containment programs.

At the same time, industry officials said the federal government could do a better job of providing states with the resources needed for surveillance and containment in the event of an outbreak of the dreaded H5N1 virus.

The H5N1 strain is spreading through wild birds and poultry in several countries, killing more than 100 people, mostly in Asia. It also has killed or led to the slaughter of more than 200 million domestic fowl in Asia, Europe and Africa. Health officials have said the virus could cause a global pandemic if it mutates to become easily spread from human to human.

‘”Of course we’re all concerned about the worst-case scenario of human-to-human transmission,” said Castle, who is concerned that the government’s focus has been on developing and stockpiling vaccines, rather than on preventing and containing the spread of the disease.

While most of those attending the meeting predicted that H5N1 eventually would show up in wild birds in this country, they were cautiously optimistic that commercial poultry flocks can be protected.

“The industry is going to have to wave a big stick for biosecurity, but I think it can be done,” said Christopher McNeill, a veterinarian with Virginia’s agriculture department.

In the event that a flock on the Delmarva peninsula becomes infected, industry officials plan to rapidly kill all of the birds, either by gassing them with carbon dioxide or suffocating them in fire-retardant foam, and compost them inside the chicken houses.

The USDA plan, they noted, suggests that the best way to dispose of dead birds is to bury them, a practice that could increase the risk of the virus spreading, and contaminate ground water supplies as well.

“It’s just appalling that USDA would have that as the best choice for disposal,” said Bill Satterfield, executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., a trade group.

Satterfield noted that one industry official he talked to said the best thing the federal government could do to protect the Delmarva poultry industry from avian flu is “just get out of the way.”

Tom Holder, a veterinarian with Allen’s Hatchery, said the peninsula’s four major poultry companies have stockpiled supplies and agreed to share resources and establish quarantine areas in the event of an outbreak.

“We don’t need a document that thick,” he said of the USDA plan. “…. We need about five pages … We need something short and sweet.”

Castle said he would ask federal agriculture and homeland security officials to consider the Delmarva industry’s planning as a model for other states.

“I want to make sure the federal role is well carried out, whatever role that should be,” he said.

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