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Poultry industry's system is antidote for bird flu

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Written Tuesday, November 15, 2005  

To many agricultural purists, corporate control of food production is for the birds. The business model could be a key component in preventing an outbreak of avian influenza in the United States, however, say two Purdue University-based poultry experts.

Because nearly all commercial poultry production in the United States is company-managed -- a system known as vertical integration -- production processes are safer and more efficient, said Todd Applegate, Purdue Extension poultry specialist. Such production practices are not as common in Asia and other nations where bird flu is a problem, added Paul Brennan, executive vice president of the Purdue-based Indiana State Poultry Association.

"The poultry industry is the most vertically integrated of all of our livestock industries," Applegate said. "As we try to reduce the risk of bird flu in this country, having full control over the entire production process is probably a good thing."

Poultry production is big business in the United States. In 2004, the combined production value of broilers, eggs, turkeys and sales from chickens was $28.9 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of that total value, 71 percent came from broilers, 18 percent from eggs and 11 percent from turkeys.

Avian influenza is a contagious viral disease that infects birds, sometimes pigs and, in rare cases, humans. The highly pathogenic H5 types of avian influenza are often fatal. The recent spread of H5 avian influenza has infected poultry and other animals in 18 Asian and eastern European nations. About 125 humans in Southeast Asia have contracted the influenza from animals, and 64 have died, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

WHO experts fear the virulent strain of bird flu could mutate and be passed from human to human, causing a worldwide pandemic.

While wild fowl carrying the virus could enter the U.S., it is unlikely those birds could come in contact with chickens and other commercially raised poultry, Applegate said. In vertically integrated companies, poultry are carefully monitored to ensure optimum health and production quality, he said.

"The typical company owns their own parent stock -- the hens and roosters -- that lay the eggs that are then transferred to a company-owned hatchery," Applegate said. "The parent stock could be on a contract farm. The company would likely own the birds on that farm, provide them feed and supply technical expertise to help that producer rear those birds.

"Once a bird is hatched from the company-owned hatchery, it is usually transported to another contracted producer. At the end of the production period, the company comes and collects the birds from that farm and takes them to a processing facility that they own themselves."

Biosecurity measures are tight throughout the production process, especially on the parent farms and hatcheries, Applegate said.

"Typical levels of biosecurity include limiting visitors onto the farm and limiting the transfer of equipment from one farm to another," he said. "By limiting visitors and equipment transfer you limit possible routes of infection. Most producers also take great lengths to limit other sources of vectors that may transmit diseases, including rodents, flies and wild birds."

Poultry production is far less complex -- and less safe -- in many other nations, Brennan said.

"In Southeast Asia, producers are more intimate with their animals, and there are often multiple species involved," Brennan said. "So you'll have fowl, poultry and swine interacting very closely with people. Also, for security reasons, producers in Southeast Asia will bring their animals into their houses, and they'll sleep fairly close to them. There's a lot of cockfighting, and there may be contact with animal fluids, which we wouldn't consider for a minute in the United States."

The mingling of species encourages the spread of avian influenza, Brennan said.

"Swine play an extraordinary role in this, in that swine are affected by avian flus and, also, human flus," he said. "They can act as a kind of crucible for mixing, which is part of the challenge in Southeast Asia. It increases exponentially the opportunity for shift or drift within the genetic makeup of the virus."

The U.S. poultry industry is keeping a close eye on avian influenza, Brennan said. Flocks are regularly checked for flu-like symptoms.

"We do a lot of surveillance," Brennan said. "In Indiana last year we conducted probably 30,000 tests just for avian influenza. Now you've got to remember that there are about 144 different avian influenzas, most of which have nothing to do with humanity except that they are out there and we have to work with them. So there's a lot of motivation for us as an industry to keep these diseases under control and out of our midst. We've been making great strides in those areas for a long time."

Indiana's poultry industry produces about 1.5 billion pounds of food per year, at a production value of nearly $2 billion annually, Brennan said. More than 12,000 Hoosiers are directly or indirectly employed in the state's poultry industry, providing about $370 million in personal income each year.

"In addition, the Indiana poultry industry uses about 7 percent of the soybean meal and about 4 percent of the corn produced in the state," Brennan said.

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