Perdue discusses bird-flu threat

US - The threat of bird flu is hammering chicken prices overseas and hurting U.S. exports - and it's only a matter of time until the United States is faced with its own avian influenza scare, the head of one of the nation's largest poultry producers said Wednesday in Orlando.

Jim Perdue, chairman of Perdue Farms Inc., said less-deadly strains of bird flu circulate all the time among birds and fowl, but public fears of the killer strain now in Asia and Eastern Europe will test the multibillion-dollar U.S. poultry industry when a milder version crops up on farms here.

"There will be an outbreak [of a milder strain], most likely within the next few years," Perdue said in an interview during a business trip to Florida to promote the company's new form of packaging chicken breasts.

Sales could drop, he said, based on unjustified fears of a health threat, and that would require an effective and prompt consumer-education campaign.

Health experts have repeatedly said that properly cooked poultry is safe. The main issue in markets such as China, Vietnam and Turkey, they say, is that so many people have little backyard flocks, attend live-poultry sales markets and often slaughter their own fowl.

That can expose them to the deadly bird-flu strain, which health authorities fear might mutate and begin spreading from human to human instead of just bird to human. So far, that strain has not surfaced in North America.

Perdue Farms, family-owned in Salisbury, Md., since 1920, is the nation's third-largest poultry company in terms of revenue, with more than $3 billion a year in sales.

Perdue and other major producers have various controls in place, and oversight by the U.S. Department of Agriculture helps provide consumers with a greater degree of confidence than those overseas, where chicken prices have plunged by two-thirds or more in recent months, Perdue said.

"It's backing up in freezers," Perdue said of U.S. chicken-meat exports to foreign countries.

That has hammered U.S. producers such as Tyson Foods Inc., the nation's largest chicken, beef and pork company, which reported on Monday that its first-quarter profit plunged 19 percent.

calendar icon 8 February 2006
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