- The Washington Times - Friday, January 6, 2006

Companies that raise chickens said yesterday they will test every flock for bird flu before the birds are slaughtered.

Companies that account for more than 90 percent of the nearly 10 billion chickens produced in 2005 in the United States have signed up for the testing program and expect more to follow, according to the National Chicken Council, a trade group that represents producers.

“We just want to assure people of the safety of the food supply,” council spokesman Richard Lobb said.

Consumption of chicken in the United States has held steady despite worries about a bird-flu strain that has infected millions of birds throughout Asia and parts of Europe and has killed 74 persons.

The average person in the United States ate 85 pounds of chicken last year, compared with 84 pounds in 2004, according to the Agriculture Department.

Chicken prices at the grocery store have dropped in recent months, mostly because production is up and exports are down, said David Harvey, a poultry analyst for the department’s Economic Research Service.

The council did not say which companies are participating, although Mr. Lobb said, “Practically all the big ones are in it.” Among the biggest companies in the industry are Tyson Foods Inc., Perdue Farms Inc. and Pilgrim’s Pride Corp.

Mr. Lobb said companies already are testing ahead of the voluntary program’s start Jan. 16. Companies will cover the costs; the council said it does not have cost estimates.

Fieldale Farms of Georgia will spend a “couple hundred thousand dollars a year,” on testing, Executive Vice President Tom Hensley said.

“It’s a big number to a little chicken company in Georgia, but it’s worth every cent,” Mr. Hensley said. Fieldale started the tests last month.

The plan is for 11 birds to be tested from each chicken flock or farm.

The council said the average flock has 55,000 to 60,000 chickens and there are an estimated 150,000 flocks produced each year. That would mean more than 1.6 million chickens would be tested.

A sample of 11 birds would provide a confidence level of 95 percent of detecting an infection in a flock in which 25 percent of birds are infected, said a government expert, Andrew R. Rhorer.

He heads the department’s National Poultry Improvement Plan, which focuses on disease prevention.

Samples will be collected on farms and tested at state- or industry-certified laboratories.

If testing turns up the most virulent form, or any H5 or H7 strains that can mutate into virulent forms, and results are confirmed by the department’s premier lab, in Ames, Iowa, the flock will be destroyed on the farm, Mr. Lobb said.

None of the birds from the affected farm will enter the food chain, the council said.

The virulent form of bird flu in Asia has not been found in the United States and is only now spreading into Eastern Europe. Authorities there say cooking kills the virus.

Health officials in the United States say it is safe to eat poultry that is properly handled and cooked.

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