CUMMING, Ga. — Going to the Milford family chicken farm is like trying to infiltrate a high-security medical lab.
After the car’s wheels are sprayed down with disinfectant, visitors are outfitted with blue biohazard suits, clear boot coveralls, tight latex gloves and lunch-lady hairnets. Then, before entering the chicken coop, guests must immerse their feet in a soupy but powerful iodine cleanser.
Like other poultry farmers across the country, the Milfords are taking extreme precautions to prevent their livelihood from getting infected with the deadly avian flu virus, which has devastated chicken markets in Europe, Asia and Africa but has yet to be detected in the Western Hemisphere.
As chicken producers for Tyson Foods, they are required by the company to ban non-essential visitors from the farm and test selected chickens before they’re sent to the slaughter – one of 15,000 tests the company conducts each week for bird flu, which is five times the number of tests it did last year.
The tightened visitor restrictions and increased testing are the company’s “code yellow” precautions, which have been in place for about three months as the virus spreads throughout the world.
Health officials worry that the virus could potentially spark a pandemic if it mutates into a new strain that could be easily transmitted between people.
If the avian flu strain ever does reach the U.S., chicken growers are confident it likely won’t ever reach their isolated chickens, let alone humans. They will, however, likely have to handle widespread fear from consumers.
And the staggering U.S. industry, which produces more than 35 billion pounds of poultry a year, is why farmers in Georgia, the nation’s leading poultry producing state, and elsewhere are taking extreme precautions.
If news from abroad is any indicator, their fears are well placed. France’s poultry industry, Europe’s largest, reported losing $48 million in monthly sales as countries scale back their chicken imports. In Italy, consumer fears of the virus have forced the industry to lay off some 30,000 workers.
Fear of a bird flu backlash in the U.S. has major producers such as Tyson Foods and Gold Kist, and family farmers alike ramping up their efforts to keep consumers at ease.
Poultry growers are quick to point out that none of the 205 cases of avian flu confirmed by the World Health Organization resulted from eating poultry – although one case in Vietnam was contracted after a victim drank raw duck’s blood. Of those cases, 113 people have died.
They add that cooking poultry at normal temperatures would kill H5N1, the deadly strain of avian flu that’s spread across Asia to Europe and Africa.
Just for good measure, KFC plans on tacking red white and blue stickers that say “rigorously inspected, thoroughly cooked, quality assured” on the lid of every bucket of fried chicken it sells in the U.S.
Neither Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A nor Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald’s Corp. (MCD) have plans to add a food-safety messages to the packaging of their chicken products.
Most chicken producers, including Little Rock, Ark.-based Tyson and Atlanta-based Gold Kist, favor an “all in, all out” process that rids coops of all chickens before each new group is brought in to insure any disease can’t be carried over.
“We’re lucky. The way our industry is set up is with enclosed housing,” said Wayne Lord, a Gold Kist vice president. “Our commercial poultry are all housed inside chicken houses so the chance for encounter with wild birds is extremely remote. It’s very insulated and very strictly monitored.”
To the Milfords, who have been in the chicken business for generations, the precautions are a sign of the times.
“Years ago, I don’t remember Papa having signs on the door saying: ‘Restricted – No Admittance,'” said Troy Milford, who runs the farm with the help of his father, Dempsey. “But everyone is more aware now.”
Another sign of the times: As he walks around his 13-acre plot, which houses four coops that grow 78,000 chicks at a time, Milford can check his cell phone for messages and e-mail alerts from the company with bird flu news.
The tight controls needed to protect chickens from disease come naturally to modern chicken coops, Milford said. At his coops, shutters automatically clamp down after cooling fans cut off and sensitive sensors connect to a computer to regulate the building’s temperature.
Entering one of them is like entering a dark wind tunnel, tinged with the stench of 20,000 clucking five-week-old chicks.
It’s a far cry from the days when the family first entered the chicken business in the 1930s, when Dempsey’s grandmother bought 80 acres in the north Georgia foothills.
Since then, plots have been handed down from generation to generation as the region has emerged as one of the nation’s leading poultry centers. Nearby Gainesville, just across the county line, calls itself the “Poultry Capital of the World” and Cumming boasts dozens of poultry farms, including three run by Dempsey’s siblings around the corner for a road named after the family.
While avian flu might lead to a host of new restrictions, it’s just the latest challenge the industry must mount, said Dempsey, an ever-smiling 66-year-old in blue overalls.
“You wouldn’t have thought about it ’til 10 years ago,” said Dempsey. “It’s a good thing, though. When you go to all the grocery stores, you don’t worry.”
On the Net:
World Health Organization: http://www.who.int/csr/disease/avian_influenza/en/