Poultry Is Safe, Agriculture Secretary Says

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

ST. LOUIS, January 6, 2006 - On Thursday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns brought to St. Louis the message that American poultry is safe to eat and that the government is prepared to protect the public from avian influenza.

Johanns said the government has allocated more money for surveillance, helping affected countries, and research to better understand bird flu and how to control its spread.

Since June 2004, a fatal form of avian flu has been sweeping across Asia, more recently, striking Eastern Europe. More than 140 people have been infected after handling sick birds -- 76 have died.

To Americans worried about becoming infected from eating poultry, Johanns said, "I can tell you without any hesitation that poultry is safe."

Missouri ranks third nationwide in turkey production and eighth in the production of poultry products. Even if bird flu does not reach the U.S., poultry and feedstock producers, farm equipment manufacturers and others in the region could be impacted negatively.

A decline in poultry production and consumption overseas could result in lower feedstock sales from the U.S., said Dick McWard, who manages a corn and soybean farm in Taylorville, Ill.

McWard attended a roundtable discussion Thursday at St. Louis University hosted by Johanns and U.S. Sen. Jim Talent for representatives of poultry producers, corn and soybean growers, and scientists who are experts on avian flu.

Worldwide, different strains of the virus can cause varying degrees of illness in chickens, turkeys, pheasants, quail, ducks, geese and guinea fowl. Birds experience a flu season every year just as people do.

Johanns said about $91.4 million in emergency funding has been earmarked to the Department of Agriculture for education, detection and containment of the virus, including stockpiling vaccines for poultry, he said. That money will be distributed to the states.

The Missouri Department of Agriculture already is administering two federal grants, for a total of $67,000, aimed at enhancing avian flu surveillance and control in commercial poultry, live bird markets and backyard flocks.

Under current Department of Agriculture regulations, no birds can be imported from a country found to have the H5N1 strain of bird flu. All live imported birds must be quarantined for 30 days and tested for avian flu before entering the U.S. Commercial flocks are tested randomly and testing of wild migratory birds is being expanded.

The H5N1 highly pathogenic strain has not been found in the U.S.

Scientists do not believe that the virus is being transmitted from person to person. But public health experts worry that if the virus mutates to allow transmission between humans, it could trigger a worldwide pandemic.

Talent was confident about U.S. preparedness.

"Basically, we have a good news message," said Talent, who spent the day traveling across Missouri with Johanns for similar panel discussions in Columbia and Kansas City. "We do have a way to act quickly if there's a problem. We want to make sure we don't have a pandemic here and that we keep it out of the U.S."

(c) St. Louis Post-Dispatch