Empty Coops a Sign of Bird Flu's Impact

Oluwatoyin Akanbi found empty chicken coops and a cardboard sign that read: "We're sorry, no chickens today," at one of the live markets where she normally buys a freshly killed bird to cook for dinner.

The two markets next to it and another up the road were also without fowl Tuesday a stark sign of the impact the discovery of bird flu on a Texas farm last week is already having on the local economy.

"The doors are closed," Akanbi said. "They have no chickens to sell.

" Owners of the four markets agreed to kill hundreds of chickens and about 20 ducks after the highly contagious strain of avian flu was discovered on the farm in Gonzales County, about 50 miles east of San Antonio. Overall about 6,600 birds have been destroyed so far.

On Tuesday, South Korea and the European Union banned all poultry imports from the United States, while Mexico banned most U.S. imports a devastating development for an industry already reeling from the discovery of bird flu in the East.

The two nations and the EU bought U.S. poultry meat products totaling $340 million last year, nearly 20 percent of the $1.8 billion worth of such exports by American producers.

Earlier this month, Russia, China, Japan and other major importers imposed localized trade bans after a less potent form of bird flu turned up in Delaware and Pennsylvania.

"Every new media report is like throwing gasoline on a flame," said Toby Moore, a spokesman for the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council, a trade group based in Stone Mountain, Ga. "Even consumers here are asking, 'Is it safe to eat chicken?' It's not like there's arsenic in it.

" Texas officials requested that Houston market owners disinfect their businesses using a potent chemical called Virkon S after the owner of the infected Gonzales farm brought some of his birds to the markets.

Chickens and ducks at two of the Houston markets tested positive for the virus, but had not become ill, said Carla Everett, a Texas Animal Health Commission spokeswoman.

Workers dressed in blue jumpsuits with head coverings and large black boots power washed the markets Tuesday.

"They couldn't find anything here, so they told us to clean up and we can go ahead and sell (poultry) again," said Coffey Brobbey, assistant manager of Ideal Food Store African Groceries, one of the markets ordered to disinfect.

But on Tuesday, after spending the weekend cleaning, Coffey said he still had not gotten word that he could resume live chicken sales.

The 100 chickens that remained at Brobbey's market and chickens and ducks at the three other markets have since been destroyed, said Dr. Max Coats, deputy executive director of the Texas Animal Health Commission.

Despite posing little, if any, threat to humans, the virus is highly contagious among birds.

"If you step in some bird manure at one live bird market, and it just happens to come off at the other live bird market and if the chickens step on it or peck it or breathe it in, there we go with transmission," said Doug Smith, a Harris County agriculture extension agent.

Coats said testing was under way at all of the chicken farms within a five mile radius of the farm where the avian flu was found in Gonzales County. Tests have come back negative with the exception of the affected farm and the two markets in Houston, he said.

Few of the chickens have become sick from the virus, which Coats said is "definitely a sign that we caught it early on.

"We have done lots of testing and have not found any other signs of disease," he said.