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Bird flu found in flocks in two more U.S. states
By (Agencies)
Updated: 2004-02-13 15:17

A strain of bird flu which is devastating to commercial chicken flocks but not harmful to humans has spread into Pennsylvania and more cases may be found in Delaware, agriculture officials in both states said on Thursday.

The disease was also confirmed in four small live poultry markets in northeastern New Jersey, a state which has had the disease for a dozen years and does not have any large, commercial flocks, according to its state officials.

The H7 avian influenza in the three states is a different strain than the H5N1 virus that has devastated flocks in 10 nations in Asia. Some 19 people have died in that outbreak.

"The single take-home message is that the form of avian influenza in New Jersey is not a human health threat," said state health commissioner Clifton Lacy.

Because avian influenza is spread easily, authorities often quarantine infected farms and destroy their birds. A dozen nations have banned all or some U.S. poultry shipments since the first infected flock was found last week in Delaware.

Chicken accounts for one-third of U.S. meat consumption. The government estimates each American will consume 82.5 pounds of chicken this year.

The Pennsylvania infection was found during routine tests of a flock of nearly 500,000 egg-producing hens in Mount Joy, Pa., which was immediately quarantined. The birds have not shown visible signs of the disease.

"We have a flock that has tested positive in Lancaster County," Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff told Reuters. "It is still undecided whether to depopulate."

A spokeswoman at the U.S. Agriculture Department said the flock "has been identified as serologically positive," meaning signs of avian influenza were found in the blood of the hens. A USDA laboratory in Ames, Iowa, will run tests for the disease.

Richard Lobb of the National Chicken Council, a trade group, said that finding antibodies in the blood suggested the virus "may well have passed through the flock" without causing serious illness and "is not a current problem."

In a statement, Wolff also said initial test results might indicate past exposure.

Some 16 poultry flocks within a two-mile radius of the infected Pennsylvania farm will undergo testing for the virus.

Avian influenza can spread rapidly throughout a flock, cutting egg production and causing misshapen or soft-shelled eggs. Bird flu is spread through the birds' feces or mouth secretions and can infect turkeys, pheasants, quail, ducks, geese, and migratory birds.

The disease is so contagious that Delaware officials have asked farmers to post "keep out" signs on their property, to stop taking tractors and farm equipment to auction and to have essential visitors wear disposable biosecurity clothing.

In Delaware, a major producer of chickens for companies such as Tyson Foods Inc., officials said they hoped the disease was contained but could not rule out more cases.

No new cases were found in tests of 36 of the 80 or so poultry houses within six miles of the two infected flocks.

"We are cautiously optimistic because no new cases of avian influenza have been discovered," said Delaware Agriculture Secretary Michael Scuse, adding, "we realize that due to the fact that the virus is easily spread among chickens, it is entirely possible that we may see more cases."

New Jersey officials said they discovered avian influenza during annual testing of the live markets within miles of New York City. At the live markets, buyers select chickens to be killed and then take them home to cook.

The live poultry markets in New Jersey and New York sell relatively small numbers of chickens.

The U.S. broiler industry sends more than 8.6 billion birds to slaughter annually.

Credit Suisse First Boston downgraded its ratings of Tyson Foods and Pilgrim's Pride Corp. to underperform from neutral after the poultry flu was found in New Jersey. Tyson Foods is the nation's top chicken producer and Pilgrim's Pride in No. 2.

Tyson's shares closed on Thursday at $16.53, down 42 cents per share, or 2.48 percent, at the New York Stock Exchange. Pilgrim's Pride closed at $20.77, down 38 cents, or 2.48 percent.

Sanderson Farms Inc., the nation's sixth largest poultry producer, closed at $54.46, down $3.83 or 6.57 percent, in over the counter trading.

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