Avian Flu Has Poultry Industry in a Flap: With Both Prices and Exports Declining in the Wake of the Recent Outbreak of the Avian Flu, It Seems Everything but the Sky Is Falling on the Poultry Industry, a Major Player in the Southeast's Agricultural Sector. but despite the Short-Term Threat Posed by the Deadly Virus and the Long-Term Threat of International Competition, the Industry Keeps Scratching Along

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Television hostess Oprah Winfrey drew attention to the avian flu issue with a January 2006 telecast titled "Bird Flu: The Untold Story." To help tell that story, Winfrey enlisted Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and associate director of the Department of Homeland Security's National Center for Food Protection and Defense.

Initially, this episode focused on the lethal danger of H5N1, a strain of the avian (or bird) flu, and how the virus could evolve into a strain that could lead to the planet's fourth pandemic in the last 100 years. Central to the discussion was how this deadly disease is transmitted through a variety of fowl, including wild ducks and domestic turkeys and chickens.

With nearly 10 million viewers watching, Winfrey asked the single question that is beginning to plague what has been a healthy and expanding industry, particularly in the Southeast: Should we not be eating chickens?

To the poultry industry's chagrin, this question is being repeated around the globe. The World Health Organization's (WHO) Web site asks "Is it safe to eat poultry and poultry products?" in a list of FAQs on the avian flu.

So far, the answers have been positive for poultry. Osterman said that chicken is "perfectly safe in this country." The WHO says that even in areas experiencing avian flu outbreaks, poultry and poultry products can be safely consumed provided that all parts are fully cooked at 70[degrees]C (158[degrees]F) (no pink parts) and that eggs are properly cooked (no runny yolks).

Foreign markets losing appetites for chicken

Although welcome, these messages have done little to quell feats that have led to a drop in poultry consumption, particularly at the international level. This decline dimmed some of the luster off 2005, a year in which domestic consumption had been projected to jump to a record high, with the average American consuming 87.7 pounds of poultry. Although domestic consumption numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) aren't final for 2005, in December this projection was scaled back to 86.7 pounds per capita--half the increase that had been predicted over 2004's 85.4 pounds.

Exports from the United States grew by 23 percent from 1.9 million in 2004 to 2.1 million metric tons in 2005, according to USDA statistics. But this growth could have been greater if not for the late-year downturn triggered by an outbreak of the avian flu in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Turkey reported its first outbreak of H5N1 avian influenza in poultry in mid-October 2005. In the next three months, the Turkish Ministry of Health reported 21 cases of the virus, including four fatalities. Two additional cases were reported in Iraq in January 2006.

The region was particularly alarmed because the disease, which has a mortality rate of more than 50 percent, had previously been confined to Southeast Asia, where humans first contracted it in 1997. The avian flu, first discovered in the early 20th century, had been confined strictly to birds until that 1997 outbreak.

Overall, U.S. poultry exports fell 15 percent between October and November 2005, from 235,000 metric tons to 199,000. This drop occurred even though export levels increased to 14 of the United States' 23 export destinations. Prominent among those nations with drops in U.S. imports were several of Turkey's neighbors: the Republic of Georgia (a 41 percent drop), Romania (69 percent), and Russia (8 percent). The decline in Russia was especially distressing because it is the largest importer of U.S. poultry, receiving roughly 40 percent of U.S. poultry exports in 2005. Mexico, the second leading importer of U.S. poultry, imported only a quarter of Russia's 2005 total.

Poultry consumption took its hardest hit in Turkey, which does not import U.S. poultry. Toby Moore, a spokesman for the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council (USAPEEC) in Stone Mountain, Ga. …