03 June 2004

From Today's Dallas Morning News

Poultry trouble grows
Pilgrim's Pride flock is 2nd to be destroyed in recent infections

A second flock of 24,000 chickens raised for Pilgrim's Pride Corp. has been killed after testing positive for avian influenza, the third incident in the state this year.

The flock of breeding birds was destroyed Saturday after state and federal workers found more evidence of the disease. The officials had been testing to learn whether the virus could be contained after an outbreak in the area last week also resulted in the destruction of 24,000 birds.

The tests of the second flock showed "the same strain of avian influenza as in the first flock (H7N3)," Dr. Bob Hillman, executive director of the Texas Animal Health Commission, said in a statement released Wednesday.

The birds were on farms near Sulphur Springs in Hopkins County. Officials have been testing surrounding commercial flocks, as well as privately owned chickens and waterfowl, to determine how far the disease had spread.

Nearly all of that testing is now complete, although test results are not yet known.

According to Dr. Hillman, the same people owned both sets of diseased flocks. Their names have not been released.

Pilgrim's Pride, based in Pittsburg, Texas, said that the chickens were used to lay eggs for hatching and that none of the products had left the farms.

Texas agriculture officials have tried to reassure consumers, saying the disease does not compromise the safety of cooked poultry or eggs.

The disease is usually transmitted from bird to bird through respiratory discharge.

It can also be passed in bird manure.

Pilgrim's Pride spokeswoman Sondra Fowler said the company decided to destroy the flock "as a prudent, pre-emptive action."

"One preliminary test showed a positive. Normally, they're tested a lot more than that. We went ahead and depopulated because we thought it was the prudent thing to do," she said.

The company expects no significant impact from this outbreak, unlike in 2002, when avian influenza cost the company millions and resulted in the destruction of 27.4 million birds.

This time around, the number of infected birds is "still a very small percentage, a fraction of 1 percent of our whole flock," said Ms. Fowler.

In February, more than 9,000 chickens were destroyed in South Texas, and big importers such as Mexico, Russia and Hong Kong banned Texas poultry as a result.

Most countries have relaxed the bans, but some have kept them because the February flu strain (H5N2) was highly capable of causing disease.

Pilgrim's Pride said the company is the second-largest poultry producer in Mexico, so that will help offset any trade issues that arise from bans there.

"That will somewhat mitigate the impact on us. We don't have to export, we're already there," said Ms. Fowler.

The company's stock was up 15 cents to close at $26.96 on the New York Stock Exchange.

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