July 7, 2006
Beating Bird Flu
Producers provide front line defense against disease
By Bobby Horecka
Nacogdoches County broiler producer David Alders stays well informed on his farm management by use of sophisticated computer systems.
David Alders doesn't have to look far when it comes to ensuring the chickens he produces are among the safest in the world.
He's got eight children, and chicken is definitely a staple in their diets. But if that weren't enough reason, Alders also raises chickens by the hundreds of thousands each year near the tiny berg of Woden in East Texas, and keeping those birds a viable business depends on him and others in the industry ensuring they're doing everything possible to maintain the safeguards in place.
Not surprisingly, Alders takes notice when words like bird flu make headlines. Diseases such as the highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza could easily deal a death blow to his industry.
So poultry producers remain vigilant protecting their flocks, and ultimately, the food on their plates.
Thus far, no cases of the most pathogenic forms of the bird flu have found their way into the United States. Places in Southeast Asia have been ravaged by the disease, with thousands of birds eradicated and even a few human illnesses.
But American safeguards have kept the harmful diseases out, safeguards which begin at the producer end and work their way to the dinner table.
Long before words like bird flu entered the lexicon, poultry producers were streamlining their production methods to blockade the spread of disease, Alders said.
While most diseases have no impact on humans or food safety, they can greatly impact the well-being of a flock of birds. One sick chicken can literally take out a whole house, so producers strive to maintain wellness among their flocks.
Of course, Alders said, that didn't happen overnight.
The modern poultry production business is largely a product of the 20th Century. Although a long standing food staple, poultry production remained a small affair until well into the 1930s, when national animal statistics tallied just 34 million birds farmed.
"Most people just kept a few chickens in their yard, and for the most part, they were kept for special occasions. When they wanted chicken, they simply caught a spent hen or spare rooster, rung its neck and served it up," he said.
So chicken stayed more of a luxury food, which is why so many families came to know the meal as something served for Sunday lunch, often with company.
National statistics show the average person ate less than one pound of chicken per year in 1934. The average bird then weighed less than three pounds. Many were either hatched on the farm or purchased from seed companies.
Realizing a potential market, seed companies began to expand their hold on the chicken industry, first paying farmers to raise the chicks for them, and later, handling the processing and distribution of the meat. It literally took poultry production from a dozen or so backyard birds to large scale chicken farms, something Alders described as a vertical integration of the business.
Today, farmers produce in excess of 8 billion chickens annually, raising birds that are more than double the size of their 1930 counterparts on half the feed and in less than half the time. American consumption, likewise, has grown to an average of 82 pounds of chicken per person per year.
Part of the increase in consumption comes with the evolution of the food industry itself, Alders said.
His grandmother, for instance, would go into the back yard for her birds. His mother, by contrast, bought the whole, processed bird at a store. Today, his wife brings it home by individual piece selections (drumsticks, breasts or wings), and his children often pick it up already prepared, either at a fast food restaurant or in microwavable dishes.
"That's a significant amount of change in the way we eat chicken that can be seen in only four generations," he said.
Alders hasn't always farmed chickens. He started in real estate in the city, and after a few years, felt the pull of the country calling him back home, where his father still raises grain crops.
Today, he oversees the operation of 13 chicken housesseven at one location and six at anotherwhich combined raise in excess of 3.2 million broiler chickens annually.
Nacogdoches County has become a hub of such operations in Texas, with nearly 1,000 broiler houses producing enough food for more than 4 million people each year.
Although often criticized for the fact, the improved efficiencies of modern poultry production work to better control disease infection, Alders said. By better management of more birds in consolidated areas, fewer backyard flocks are required. And by better containing the animals, fewer infectious diseases can be spread.
The chicken houses are contained environments on sophisticated support systems. Computerized feeders deliver water and grain to the birds in temperature-controlled production facilities, ensuring the animals have as little contact with outside factors as possible.
That's not the case in many other parts of the world, Alders said, and it's also one of the big reasons bird flu seems to have spread so rampantly in Southeast Asia.
"Their poultry production methods are equivalent to those we had back in the 1930s," he said. "Almost all of their chicken production relies on backyard farms with no controls of any sort. And because of that, they're wide open to disease."
Even among his own chicken houses, Alders is careful not to intermingle flocks, foodstuffs or wastes between the two farm locations. He staffs the two houses with different crews, and keeps contact with the birds to a minimum. Delivery trucks even disinfect their wheels upon leaving the farms in an effort to prevent the off chance of spreading a disease from farm to farm.
And with bio-security threats ever-present in today's society, such practices are common throughout the industry, headed by large corporations including Pilgrims Pride, Tyson and Holly Farms. Public tours of production and processing facilities are discouraged and in many cases, disallowed.
Beyond the industry, scientists also play a major role, testing several thousand samples annually from wild bird species and performing batteries of lab tests each year.
Since 1995, Texas' commercial poultry industry submitted more than 200,000 samples yearly to the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory, a number that topped 366,665 last year. Routine disease surveillance is also conducted on noncommercial flocks.
Given the rigorous safety precautions in the United States, most would think U.S. chicken exports would flourish on the world market, particularly in places where the H5N1 virus have been found.
But that hasn't been the case, Alders said.
Instead, poultry consumption has dramatically dropped off, he said. Where American producers thought they might secure an export market, they found a lack of market in which to sell.
"It's a discouraging fact, but one we in the industry see as a precursor of what could happen, should the disease ever turn up here. That's why we all have to remain vigilant to see that it doesn't," he said.
So far, H5N1 bird flu has been detected in about 50 countries. It is believed to be carried by wild birds or spread through the illegal movement of poultry.
Since 2003, roughly 200 people have contracted the virus in other countries. Nearly all had extensive direct contact with sick and dead birds, or consumed improperly prepared products from sick birds. Human-to-human transmission has not been demonstrated, according to the Texas Animal Health Commission.
As with most food products, Alders said, proper preparation is crucial in avoiding any germ-based pathogen found in chicken. "Nobody likes undercooked chicken anyway," he said.
For more information about avian influenza or to report an unusual illness or death loss in a flock of birds, contact the Texas Animal Health Commission at 1-800-550-8242 or visit their website at www.tahc.state.us.