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Officials: Poultry safe to eat despite flu

LAWRENCEVILLE - The simple statement "avian influenza: it's not in your food" graces the U.S. Poultry Federation's main Web site, informing consumers it's OK to buy poultry this holiday

season.

"You can eat chicken at Thanksgiving without being concerned," said James Scroggs, executive director of The Georgia Poultry Laboratory in Oakwood. "It's not a concern because Georgia has a very aggressive avian influenza testing program. If anything is ever found, we will identify it

quickly."

Avian influenza, commonly known as "bird flu" or H5N1, is found in poultry. Scientists first believed it impossible for birds to directly infect humans with the virus, but with the death toll now at 64 in Asia and steadily climbing, scientists were wrong.

Although the bird flu has not hit the U.S., the Vancouver Sun newspaper reported Sunday that federal officials revealed a domestic duck from Fraser Valley farm in British Columbia was sent to slaughter after testing positive for an H-5 virus. The newspaper reported agency veterinarian Cornelius Kiley said there's no indication the virus has spread beyond the farm.

Regardless, Georgia poultry farmers have been taking all the precautions they can and will continue to do so.

Georgia will double flu tests for poultry this coming year, increasing from 100,000 tests to 200,000, Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Tommy Irvin said.

"If it rears its ugly head, we'll be ready," he said. "We're doing everything scientifically available to keep our food safe."

Since Georgia is the leading poultry producing state in the U.S., many poultry labs and farms aggressively monitor their birds.

"We have a lot of the same departments that a human hospital would have," Scroggs said about the Georgia Poultry Laboratory. "We have clinic departments and nine branch labs throughout the state all funded through the Georgia Department of Agriculture."

Georgia even has The Georgia Poultry Improvement Agency, which works in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is the official state agency for the administration of the National Poultry Improvement plan. Its objective is to provide a cooperative industry-state-federal program that would encourage new technology for the improvement of poultry.

Experts say if avian flu hits Georgia, it will start on the privately owned farms known as "backyard producers."

"We think it's going to come to the yard," Irvin said. This is why Georgia Poultry Laboratory is constantly monitoring backyard producers and anyone who raises

poultry.

"Our main objective is to provide the safest, healthiest poultry products in Georgia," Scroggs said.

Consumers may question the wisdom of preparing the traditional stuffed turkey after hearing new reports about the spread of avian flu, but Georgia poultry producers have not seen a decline in sales.

"Our sales haven't gone down at all," said Tom Hensley, executive vice-president of Fieldale Farms Corp. in Baldwin. "In fact, more chicken and turkeys are being sold (than this time last year)."

The price of poultry reflects the steady buying trends of consumers. On Oct. 24, 2004, the price of a whole chicken closed at $.74, according to records at the Georgia Department of Agriculture. On Oct. 25, the price of a whole bird closed at $.73.