Chattanooga area poultry farmers take steps after bird flu outbreak

FILE - In this Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009, file photo, a Tyson Foods, Inc., truck is parked at a food warehouse in Little Rock, Ark. Tyson Foods said Monday, March 6, 2017, a strain of bird flu sickened chickens at a poultry breeder that supplies it with birds. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the 73,500 birds at the Lincoln County, Tenn., facility were destroyed and none of the birds from the flock will enter the food system. The H7 strain of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, or HPAI, can be deadly for chickens and turkeys. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)

Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia poultry farmers are taking steps to prevent the spread of an outbreak of lethal bird flu found about two hours west of Chattanooga.

"This is taken very seriously," said Dale Barnett, executive director of the Tennessee Poultry Association. Barnett said companies are "fully aware" of measures to be taken to increase security at their facilities.

"They've notified their growers and farmers," he said, including those in the Chattanooga area. The Chattanooga region may have more than a dozen commercial poultry farms.

photo Bird flu can make people sick only if they've been directly exposed to infected birds. But the strain of bird flu could change itself into a brand-new strain that allows it to jump from human to human. (Kelly Bennett/KRT)

A farm in Lincoln County, Tenn., just outside Fayetteville, that produces chickens for Tyson Foods was ordered to cull its flock after federal officials on Sunday identified the outbreak, the first time the disease has struck this year.

Some 73,500 birds had to be culled over the weekend at the farm, an operation raising so-called breeder birds, which lay the eggs that become chickens for meat. The Department of Agriculture has not yet fully identified the specific strain of the H7 virus found at the farm.

The USDA has also established a quarantine on chicken farms around the area, and Tyson said it was testing chickens on such farms to determine whether the disease had spread.

"All flocks located within a 6-mile radius of the farm will be tested and will not be transported unless they test negative for the virus," Tyson said in a statement on its website. "Based on the limited scope known to us at this time, we don't expect disruptions to our chicken business."

Two poultry processors, Koch Foods and Pilgrim's Pride, have plants in downtown Chattanooga employing about 1,700 people, according to the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.

Cameron Bruett, a spokesman for Pilgrim's Pride parent JBS, said that none of the farms or facilities affected by the bird flu are Pilgrim's operations.

"While the company does not have any facilities or production in the quarantined area, we will actively monitor our operations and work with our family farm partners to minimize any potential for disease spread," he said.

Tyson also said this was "a bird health issue and not a food safety or human health concern," adding that "there's no evidence to suggest that any form of bird flu can be transmitted to humans from properly cooked poultry."

A flu epidemic led to the culling of some 48 million chickens and turkeys from late 2014 through mid-2015, dealing a crippling blow to U.S. egg producers, as well as to some turkey producers and backyard poultry growers. Authorities believe migratory birds are primarily responsible for spreading bird flu, though a 2015 analysis by the USDA also described a human role in spreading the disease.

The broiler chicken business escaped that outbreak, and in general is less susceptible to flu because its birds, which are used for meat, are slaughtered at 45 to 60 days old, so the birds rotate out of barns far more quickly. Broilers are also raised in flocks of tens of thousands of birds, whereas barns used for egg production can house 300,000 or more birds.

Last year, there was one reported incident of deadly flu in the United States, which affected a turkey farm in Indiana. The poultry industry has increased its bio- security efforts since 2015, establishing practices for cleaning transport trucks before they enter a facility and limiting access to essential workers only.

South Korea was the first country to announce a ban on imports of U.S. chicken and eggs after the announcement of the Tennessee outbreak. The country has itself been fighting a flu outbreak, culling 34 million birds so far this year.

Among the preventative steps taken by growers are heightened biosecurity such as isolating birds from visitors and other birds and keeping germs from spreading by cleaning shoes, tools, equipment, vehicles and cages.

Also, Barnett said, growers are urged to permit only immediate farm owners and employees to conduct business at the sites and take extra steps to prevent outside personnel from visiting the locations.

He said he expected there will be heightened concerns at least for the next couple of weeks due to the outbreak. The incubation period for the flu is three to five days or so, Barnett said.

He said it's only speculation at present about how the Lincoln County infection took place. Barnett said he believes it was mostly likely though wild bird migration.

He said people who aren't commercial growers and have backyard flocks are asked to report any losses to the state veterinarian.