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April 24, 2014

Bird flu found on quail farm no threat to humans

Discovery of bird flu on a Stanislaus County quail farm poses no threat to humans, but could potentially hurt the local poultry industry if export ban to certain countries drags on.

The recent outbreak of bird flu on a Stanislaus County quail farm poses no threat to humans, according to state and local officials.

But the impact the discovery could have on the region’s profitable poultry industry is still unknown. A low-pathogenic strain of avian influenza was found on the farm outside of Oakdale on April 18. Since then, the California Department of Food and Agriculture and U.S. Department of Agriculture have taken over the case, quarantined the farm and are euthanizing all of its birds.

“You want to move on these things very quickly so they don’t spread,” said Stanislaus County Agricultural Commissioner Milton O’Haire. “I am confident that they will take care of it quickly. They are moving through it pretty quickly. Of course, we are concerned it doesn’t pop up anywhere else. We are hoping this is the only location; otherwise, it would put the rest of the poultry industry at risk. It’s quite a valuable industry in our county.”

News of the outbreak has prompted a handful of U.S. trade partners to place a temporary ban on poultry from California. Russia, Japan, Taiwan and Cuba have halted exports from the state, said Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation.

Poultry is a $323 million annual industry in Stanislaus County, according to the most recent 2012 Agriculture Crop Report. It is the third-biggest agricultural product in the county, behind milk and almonds. The fatal virus can spread among all poultry – chickens, turkey, game birds and the rest.

Mattos said the farm in question is a smaller producer and not a member of the Poultry Federation. The name of the farm is not being released. It had 116,000 birds at the time of the outbreak – 95,000 Japanese quail and 21,000 Peking ducks. All of the birds are in the process of being destroyed to quell the outbreak, said Steve Lyle, director of public affairs for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Officials do not know how long it will take to clear the farm of the virus.

“Our veterinarians are working with the USDA at the farm currently to investigate this case and make a determination of how long until it is considered contained,” Lyle said.

Such outbreaks are rare in the state and county, O’Haire said. He couldn’t recall a case in Stanislaus in recent memory, and has worked in the agricultural commissioner’s office since 1999. The strain found, H5, is considered low-pathogenic and not harmful to humans. Its mutated, highly pathogenic H5N1 strain, which can infect humans and lead to death, has grabbed headlines over the years for outbreaks in Asia.

Mattos said that while the impact on the farm in question will be devastating, it is a relatively small operation compared with the average-size commercial chicken ranch in the area, which has 450,000 to 600,000 birds. USDA reports show the state exported $13 million of chicken in 2012. He said 1 or 2 percent of all poultry gets exported internationally, with most of the rest winding up in California or West Coast supermarkets.

Mattos also assured consumers that all of the meat on store shelves now is safe to eat. “There is no harm to humans in this form, and meat cannot carry the virus,” he said. “This is very concerning to the industry, but not devastating.”

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