Southern fairs won't press broiler industry's bird flu luck

Showing off a hen
Fourteen-year-old Keri Moore of Meridian, Miss., shows off "Dolly," a 17-week old rose comb brown leghorn hen that earned a grand champion place in the layers division and a first place in senior showmanship at the 4-H competition of the Lauderdale County Fair.
Rogelio V. Solis | AP

The South is the heart of U.S. broiler chicken production and escaped the deadly bird flu virus that devastated flocks in the Midwest this spring. Autumn, however, brings the possibility that migrating wild birds will carry the virus to the lower half of the U.S.

To try to keep bird flu at arm's length, a number of states are barring or limiting poultry shows and public sales, including those at state fairs in September and October -- something their northern neighbors did this summer. That's forcing kids who've worked for months to raise and qualify poultry at fairs to get creative with their exhibits.

"We want to be cautious because our industry is so huge," Mississippi State University Extension Service poultry science instructor Jessica Wells said of the state, which is the No. 5 broiler producer in the U.S.

The Mississippi State Fair added flu test requirements for its open poultry show, but 4-H organizers reorganized their state contests to have photo boards, record books and a one-bird-per-contestant showmanship event rather than risk last-minute cancellation, state veterinarian Dr. Jim Watson said.

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The change has 14-year-old Keri Moore, who placed first in two categories at a Mississippi county fair, working on her photo board. She said she wanted to bring her six competitive chickens, but is glad to "still bring one for showmanship."

To the east, the North Carolina State Fair won't allow any squawkers, cluckers or quackers, instead holding poultry-related competitions -- including an optional quiz bowl and a FFA event for building easy-to-clean chicken coops with anti-contamination features such as a fence and cover to exclude wild birds or storage for coop-only boots, spokeswoman Jennifer Kendrick said.

Scientists believe wild birds that migrated to northern nesting grounds brought the H5N2 strain which spread through turkey and chicken farms in several states, leading to the destruction of 48 million birds. While the outbreak is over in the Midwest, scientists are on guard in case it returns or moves into the Atlantic Flyway, the only one of four U.S. bird migration paths that wasn't affected.

"It's very difficult to predict what happened in the breeding grounds over the summer -- whether this virus is likely to remain the dominant virus," said Brian McCluskey, science, technology and analysis director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

But, he said, "We're certainly preparing for it."

The top two broiler-producing states, Georgia and Alabama, aren't restricting live bird exhibitions, but recommend precautions such as keeping birds indoors to avoid exposure to wild birds and their droppings. The Georgia Department of Agriculture sees poultry exhibitions as a surveillance opportunity: Birds without papers showing they're free of bird flu and other diseases will be tested, spokeswoman Julie McPeake said.

Other states have a hodgepodge of restrictions for state fairs and other poultry exhibitions. South Carolina will allow exhibitions of doves and pigeons, which are resistant to the virus and not believed to spread it readily. Virginia will test each bird at check-in for the state fair's youth poultry show; birds going to other shows must be isolated for at least two weeks after returning home.

The most southern outbreak in the Mississippi Flyway, where 42.5 million birds were destroyed because of the H5N2 virus, was in north Arkansas. The nation's third-biggest broiler producer and No. 2 turkey producer last year, Arkansas will require all poultry at the Arkansas-Oklahoma State Fair to have a clean bird flu test.

Several Midwestern states canceled poultry shows at summertime fairs. Minnesota, one of the hardest-hit states, was among them. Instead, the state fair held display and "birdless showmanship" contests, said Brad Rugg, its superintendent for 4-H programming.

Sixteen-year-old Katie Benson, whose poster explained how to interpret egg carton labels, won a $1,000 scholarship. She said she was disappointed that she couldn't show her chickens, but knew producers' livelihoods were at stake.

"I think there was a lot more learning this year than in years past," she said. Among other things, she said, other students' posters provided more information than looking at their birds: "You were able to walk around and read and learn about so many different aspects."