By Mark Weinraub
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. broiler chicken producers are shoring up security plans over the risk of a new outbreak of bird flu this fall even though the disease, which has forced the culling of almost 50 million birds, spared their flocks during the spring.
The industry, which raises chickens used for meat, is closely watching to see if its birds will be susceptible to any new strains of the disease that might appear in birds as they begin to migrate south in the coming weeks, an executive with the National Chicken Council said in an interview.
"We do not know what has happened to the virus in the past few months," said Ashley Peterson, senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the National Chicken Council. "It could have mutated into something more deadly. Until we have a case, it is almost completely impossible to tell."
The council represents producers and processors, such as Tyson Foods Inc, that account for 95 percent of U.S. chicken production.
There were no infections at commercial broiler operations during the spring, even in areas where egg-laying flocks and turkeys were affected.
Wild birds, which were thought to have been responsible for the springtime spread of bird flu in northern parts of the country, will begin to migrate south in the next few weeks. The migration will bring them through states such as Arkansas and Alabama, which have major broiler producing operations.
As Midwestern egg-layer farms and turkey farmers struggle to recover, broiler producers are finalizing plans to try to keep out the virus, which was dormant during the summer because of hot weather.
"Even though we did not get impacted, that does not mean we cannot get impacted," Peterson said.
The National Chicken Council is encouraging members to strictly follow security procedures, including immediately cleaning up spilled feed grain that might entice wild birds to stop at a farm. Traditional measures such as boot washing and limits on farm visitors are particularly important.
"We learned we need to be more vigilant in our biosecurity measures," Peterson said.
The U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday sent a letter to the USDA asking about improvements to biosecurity and the possible use of a vaccine to control another outbreak.
"Questions remain regarding the potential threat of a recurrence of highly pathogenic avian influenza this fall and preparedness efforts underway, at both the state and federal level and on farms," the letter said.
USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service on Friday said it has developed educational tools to help producers improve their biosecurity practices. The agency also has enhanced its training of teams that will respond to any outbreak.
It also was boosting its surveillance of wild birds and has plans to test 40,000 wild bird samples for the presence of avian flu. The agency also said it has raised its capacity for depopulating infected flocks and disposing of the carcasses.
According to the National Chicken Council, the commercial broiler industry has already lost $365 million in export business because many countries banned U.S. poultry shipments during the outbreak.
Some countries have lifted the restrictions while bans in other places are due to expire soon. But new restrictions could be imposed if flocks start testing positive again.
"I do not know if we can afford to take the hit all over again," Peterson said.
(Additional reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago; Editing by Alan Crosby)