If deadly bird flu should infect a chicken or turkey flock in the United States, billions of dollars in sales to foreign countries will be threatened.
The United States and dozens of other nations have banned shipments of poultry from 30 countries where various forms of virulent bird flu have been found on commercial farms.
What will happen if the tables are turned on the United States, the biggest poultry-producing nation in the world?
"Needless to say, the implications are huge," Ron DeHaven, head of the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The industry is worth about $29 billion (Ђ23.5 billion) annually. Of the 42 billion pounds of poultry produced this year, 6 billion pounds, or 14 percent, will be sold abroad, according to department estimates.
More than 200 million birds have died or been slaughtered because of a lethal strain of bird flu spreading through Asia, Europe and Africa. Scientists fear a worldwide epidemic could develop if the virus should mutate into a form that could spread easily among people. Since 2003, the disease has killed 110 people, almost all apparently sickened by proximity to birds.
Authorities expect the virus to arrive in migratory birds in the United States this year. Already, U.S. officials are reassuring other countries about their ability to contain the virus in commercial flocks and are urging that restrictions be applied to a limited area and not the entire nation.
"We've had these types of discussions all along with our trading partners," said John Clifford, the service's chief veterinarian.
That's what the Agriculture Department did with France, where turkeys in one southeastern region were infected in February, and Germany, where a different but still lethal strain was found in 2003 in North Rhine-Westphalia.
Canada also faced limited restrictions, imposed when the virus was found in November on duck and goose farms in British Columbia, but the restrictions have since been lifted.
"It's one of those situations where we need to treat others as we would want them to treat us, and we have done that," DeHaven said Wednesday.
"We can't guarantee all of our trading partners would treat us similarly, but if we don't behave consistently with international standards and good science, then we can't expect others to," he said. "France and Germany are good examples where we limited our restrictions to those geographic areas where infection was found."
If the virus should turn up in American chickens or turkeys, the government plans to quarantine the farm, restrict bird movements within about two miles (3 kilometers) and boost testing within about six miles (10 kilometers).
If screening tests suggest a potentially virulent flu virus is present, and the birds show signs of flu, they'll be killed immediately, even before more detailed testing is finished, DeHaven said, reports AP.
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