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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)

FACT FACT

Chattanooga has two sizable poultry processing operations, Koch Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride. The two companies employ about 1,700 people locally, according to the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.

Stepped up monitoring is underway after a flock of chickens at a commercial poultry breeding operation in Chattooga County, Ga., tested positive for bird flu.

Some 18,000 birds were killed as a result of the discovery at the Northwest Georgia farm, which is the state's first reported outbreak since recent incidents in neighboring Tennessee and Alabama.

Georgia is the nation's largest commercial broiler breeder with poultry a $25.9 billion-a-year industry employing some 104,000 people.

"It's the largest sector of the largest industry in Georgia," said state Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Julie McPeake.

She wouldn't immediately identify the name of the processing company to which the farm sells. Chattooga County is located about an hour's drive south of Chattanooga.

Officials said H7, a presumptive low pathogenic avian influenza, was discovered after prior outbreaks this year in Middle Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky.

The state's agriculture department said Avian influenza does not pose a risk to the food supply, and no affected animals entered the food chain. The risk of human infection with avian influenza during poultry outbreaks is "very low," according to the department.

It said the virus was identified during routine pre-sale screening for the commercial facility and was confirmed as H7 avian influenza by the USDA National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa.

Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary W. Black said the state is committed to protecting the livelihoods of the many farm families dependent on the poultry sector.

"In order to successfully do that, it is imperative that we continue our efforts of extensive biosecurity," he said in a statement.

Mike Giles, who directs the Georgia Poultry Federation, said poultry is important to Northwest Georgia.

Heightened surveillance was put into place within a 6.2-mile radius of the farm and there's an enhanced level of biosecurity, Giles said. Those steps are designed to reduce producers' overall risk of bird flu.

He said farmers should "review the plants and make sure everybody involved in work on the farm would be familiar with biosecurity steps every time they enter the poultry house."

No other flocks have tested positive or experienced any clinical signs, according to the state agriculture department.

The Georgia case is considered a presumptive low pathogenic avian influenza because the flock did not show any signs of illness. While LPAI is different from high pathogenic avian influenza, control measures are under way as a precautionary measure.

Wild birds are the source of the virus, the department said. Avian influenza virus strains often occur naturally in wild birds, and can infect wild migratory birds without causing illness.

Giles said the state, federal government and the industry years ago put into place a system that tests every flock before it goes to the processing plant.

"There's testing going on every day," he said. "It's looking for the presence of antibodies for the flu."

Samples were taken at the Chattooga County plant that indicated a suspicion of the flu, Giles said.

"It shows the system is working," he said.

McPeake said a surveillance protocol also has been started related to so-called backyard locations, or non-commercial growers who may have from one to 50 or so birds.

"Everything has tested negative," she said.

Rebecca Thomas, the University of Georgia extension agent for Chattooga, estimated there are well more than a dozen poultry farm operations in the county.

In the past three years, she said, there's been at least a 40 percent increase in poultry growers in the county.

Thomas said she has visited each of the feed stores in Chattooga to help communicate the need for good biosecurity measures.

Also, the state veterinarian issued an order on March 16 prohibiting poultry exhibitions, sales at regional and county fairs, festivals, swap meets, live bird markets, flea markets, and auctions.

A flu epidemic in the U.S. led to the culling of some 48 million chickens and turkeys from late 2014 through mid-2015, dealing a crippling blow to egg producers, as well as to some turkey producers and backyard poultry growers.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.

This story was updated March 27 at 10:45 p.m. with more information.

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