January, 2006- How well prepared is the U.S. poultry industry for an avian influenza outbreak? According to the USDA, the H5N1 highly pathogenic form of avian influenza causing fear around the world of an influenza epidemic has never occurred in the USA. Nonetheless, the U.S. chicken industry announced a testing program to insure that chicken flocks and the food products made from them are free of potentially hazardous forms of avian influenza. It’s a sign of the high stakes involved, not just in terms of the industry flocks and infrastructure in place in this country, but even more importantly, the public confidence in the health and safety of the industry’s products.
Under the National Chicken Council’s avian influenza testing program, participating companies will test every flock to insure that it is safe. Samples will be taken from each flock while it is still on the farm, and tests will be conducted under procedures approved by the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP). Any flock found to have avian influenza in the H5 or H7 types would be promptly and humanely destroyed on the farm and disposed of in an environmentally acceptable manner. None of the birds would be sent to the processing plant or otherwise enter the food chain.
“Through comprehensive testing covering all flocks, chicken companies will add another layer to the multiple barriers that already exist to protect American consumers and continue to insure safety and quality of the food supply,” said Stephen Pretanik, director of science and technology for the National Chicken Council (NCC).
Word of the NCC testing program came the same week that it was becoming clear that an H5N1 bird flu outbreak in Turkey was growing worse due to mishandling by governmental authorities there. The two events – announcement of the NCC testing program and reports of the lack of preparedness of the Turks – were unrelated but served to underline the vastly different circumstances in the USA and those in Asia and parts of Eastern Europe.
How well prepared is the North American poultry industry for an outbreak? Dr. Elizabeth Krushinskie, vice president, Food Safety and Production Programs, U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, addressed that question recently in an online seminar entitled, “Avian Influenza: Dealing with the Challenge” (see the seminar archive at http://www.bulldogsolutions.net/WattPublishing/archives/WPC01102006/archive.asp). Dr. Krushinskie concluded that the U.S. poultry industry’s extensive prevention, surveillance and response systems – in addition to its structural firewalls – would make widespread transmission of the disease in flocks less likely than in other parts of the world. The poultry industry’s closed production system – unlike even the U.S. beef and hog production systems where livestock are traded in markets – provides an added measure of protection. “Introduction and significant spread of Asian highly pathogenic avian influenza in the U.S. commercial poultry production system are unlikely to happen,” she said.
Even so, the U.S. poultry industry is prepared to go a step further with the new NCC testing program. NCC is accepting sign-ups by companies in the industry. Companies with more than 90 percent of chicken production in the U.S. have already enrolled. They are required to report their findings monthly to NCC. Any confirmed finding of an H5 or H7 virus would be reported promptly by the company or the state veterinarian to the USDA, which would report it to OIE. Companies are required to keep records of flocks tested under the program and to have audits conducted by independent, third-party auditors at least once per year.
The NCC’s Pretanik explained that if disease in the H5 or H7 types occurs in a flock, the industry believes that the best way to prevent the disease from spreading, or possibly turning into the highly pathogenic form, is to destroy all the birds in an affected flock. In the event of an outbreak, the NCC plan calls for the establishment of a control zone two miles around any affected flock in which other flocks would be held and tested, with testing repeated weekly. The continued testing would insure that flocks are clear of H5/H7 avian influenza before going to market.
The NCC testing program should go a long way in helping maintain consumer confidence in the U.S poultry industry and its products whether or not the virus ever occurs in a U.S. flock.