Ark. Experts Seek Fast End to China Chicken Ban

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Poultry experts said Wednesday they are hopeful China will quickly lift import restrictions put in place after nine Arkansas chickens were exposed to a strain of avian flu.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture told Arkansas' congressional delegation Tuesday that China had stopped importing Arkansas chicken parts, following similar moves by Japan and Russia. A reason wasn't cited, but nine birds at a Scott County farm were exposed to a non-pathogenic strain of avian flu during floods in June. Other birds in the chicken house were destroyed as a precaution and all birds in a 6.2-mile radius are being tested regularly to ensure they weren't exposed.

Bans are sometimes imposed for 90 days at a time as growers confirm their birds are healthy. The Arkansas Farm Bureau said Wednesday it would expect the Scott County farm involved to be cleared if no additional signs of exposure are found, but it is still up to individual countries to allow imports.

"This is not so much a case of us saying that we're safe, but their saying that we're safe," said Matt King, an economist with the Arkansas Farm Bureau. "We have a safety protocol in the United States. By our standards, if nothing is found in September, they can get a clean bill of health."

Agriculture officials, poultry companies and trade groups would likely work to convince China and the other nations that Arkansas poultry products are safe, King said.

The nine birds exposed to avian flu are among 1.2 billion birds produced in Arkansas annually. "It's a blip on a blip," King said.

Toby Moore, a spokesman for the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council, said in an email Wednesday that routine surveillance detected the presence of antibodies consistent with exposure to low-pathogenic H7N7 avian flu.

"They showed no clinical signs of sickness and there was no increase in mortality," Moore wrote. Subsequent blood tests have been negative for the virus, he said. "We were surprised that China did not limit restrictions only to the county level, since the event was isolated."

Scott County suffered widespread flooding in June; King said it is possible the chickens were exposed through water from an inundated pond that had recently visited by a migratory bird carrying the strain.

"However it got in there, it got in there," King said. "It was detected, but nothing ever came close to getting into the food supply."

Arkansas is the nation's second-largest poultry producer, behind Georgia. While breast meat is typically bound for U.S. kitchens, China takes beaks, feet, heads and other chicken parts, King said.

"U.S. customers won't see a decline (in prices) because the product that is going to China will be in oversupply and that won't necessarily be the product that we're eating," King said.

U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor issued a statement Tuesday saying his family would continue to eat Arkansas chicken, and Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., said all Arkansans can attest to the "nutritious, tasty, and perfectly safe poultry products."

"One isolated incident, dealt with according to regulations and without any further evidence of illness, should not preclude our entire state's poultry industry from access to the Chinese market," he wrote.

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