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review:A global game of CHICKEN
submited by kickingbird at Nov, 2, 2004 9:2 AM from Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

A global game of CHICKEN
Joy Powell,  Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
November 1, 2004 

In Thailand, chickens roam freely around thatched houses and on small farms. Farmers kill and dress them on the spot at tiny open-air markets, as they have for generations.

Now, as experts worry that a deadly bird-flu epidemic in Southeast Asia could unleash a world flu pandemic, the Thai government is trying to modernize those old ways. And Minnetonka-based Cargill´s chicken operations in Thailand are serving as a model in this agricultural revolution.

For Cargill, one of the world´s largest businesses, there´s big money at stake. It owns a state-of-the-art chicken-processing plant, Sun Valley Thailand, in Saraburi -- a province where several people and chicken flocks on small farms have died of bird flu.

That plant exports to Japan, Hong Kong, the European Union and Canada, supplying the likes of McDonald´s. Since Cargill opened its Sariburi plant in 1989, the international trader has helped Thailand become the world´s fourth-biggest chicken exporter.

In its second wave this year, bird flu returned in July in Southeast Asia at farms and small slaughter operations, putting at risk big processors such as Sun Valley Thailand. An outbreak at one of its contract farms in Thailand could hurt Cargill´s international reputation as a top-quality processor. Cargill has about 20 chicken plants worldwide.

"They´ve got to be really worried," said William Heffernan, a rural sociologist and professor emeritus at the University of Missouri, who has researched Cargill as one of the few corporations controlling the world food system.

"If they get tagged with being a [bird-flu] carrier on a global basis, that really costs them," Heffernan said.

Cargill intends to prevent that. Its Sun Valley Thailand operation is the only private plant in Thailand to use genetic testing to check every chicken for the bird-flu virus, said Sharon Lim, spokeswoman for Cargill´s Asian businesses.

"We are continuing to implement food safety and biosecurity measures in our plant," Lim said.

Cooking kills the virus, and no humans have caught it by eating chicken. Countries fearing bird-flu outbreaks, however, have stopped imports of fresh Thai chicken. Cargill still exports cooked chicken, such as the popular McWings, to Europe and Japan but declined to disclose sales figures.

The virus has killed 32 people who had contact with infected birds or their droppings in Thailand and Vietnam. The disease has a 75 percent mortality rate.

More than 100 million chickens and ducks were killed in Southeast Asia during an earlier outbreak this year, and the culling continues. There also are new warnings in Thailand to help prevent people from becoming infected. So far, there has been one probable case of human-to-human transmission. But some experts fear the virus strain called H5N1 could mutate into one that spreads easily between humans, with the potential to kill up to 100 million people worldwide.

Around the world, industry and animal-health experts are monitoring the crisis.

"Everyone´s scared to death of it," said Andre Ziegler, a poultry pathologist at the University of Minnesota´s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory.

Respiratory diseases such as bird flu and Exotic Newcastle Disease are the most dangerous threats to commercial poultry production today. Millions of dollars in containment costs, plus production losses and trade restrictions, can devastate small companies.

Cargill has the resources needed to buffer such potential losses. The diversified agribusiness has 101,000 employees in 67 countries and annual sales of $62.9 billion.

Cargill is stepping gingerly in Thailand these days, where it doesn´t want to be seen as a multinational bully forcing its corporate ways on the locals. It´s a politically charged atmosphere, with the government facing accusations that it hid the outbreak and the prime minister sacking the agriculture and defense ministers for not moving quickly enough to contain it.

Meanwhile, Cargill executives are collaborating with the Thai government, industry experts, the World Health Organization and the Paris-based Office International des Epizooties, which fights animal diseases.

Within its own operations, Cargill quietly is going to extraordinary lengths.

All Sun Valley Thailand employees have been vaccinated for the flu. Even before the outbreak, people on farms and in the plant used biosafety measures that include protective clothing, masks, helmets and boots. They walk through shallow tanks of disinfectant and scrub their hands with it.

Cargill also is eradicating, at its own expense, all poultry species, including wild ducks, around farms that it owns or contracts in 22 provinces.

But perhaps the strongest shield for Cargill is its machine that tests chickens using a process called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). It hunts for the H5N1 virus in ribonucleic acid -- a building block in genes.

"The advantage of this is that we are able to get the test results very quickly," Lim said.

That´s important to quickly kill exposed flocks and disinfect facilities should the virus be discovered. The Thai government, for its part, is swab-testing flocks twice: 10 or 12 days before the chickens are trucked to the plant and on the day of slaughter.

In addition, Sun Valley Thailand conducts its own PCR testing two days before the birds are transported to its plant -- a safeguard that Cargill executives hope the Thai government will emulate.

Ziegler said it´s critical to test chickens before they are moved in trucks to the plant, because sick birds could spew the virus through the countryside during the journey.

The Thai government has introduced a plan to modernize chicken farming, including some methods that Cargill has used all along, such as barns. The government is providing loans to small farmers to build barns or other coverings for flocks. But some are skeptical that farmers will do their part by registering all chickens, incinerating dead chickens or reporting chicken deaths.

With its cheap labor and proximity to chicken-hungry Asian markets, Thailand was an attractive base for Cargill when it set up shop there in 1989.

Cargill formed a joint venture with a Japanese company, Nippon Meat Packers, to market Thai chicken in Japan. In 1995, Cargill sold its U.S. broiler operations.

Cargill brought to Thailand Western-style broiler operations. The leading Thai chicken company, Charoen Pokhpand Group (CP) quickly followed suit, Heffernan said.

Sun Valley Thailand´s sprawling business now includes a parent-stock chicken farm, broiler chicken farms, a hatchery, feed plant and the processing plant.

In 2000, McDonald´s lauded Sun Valley Thailand with its Sweeney Award, the chain´s highest award for excellence among 4,000-plus suppliers worldwide. A McDonald´s spokesman in Oakbrook, Ill., declined to comment on the bird flu crisis, except to say that McDonald´s does not buy chicken from Thailand for its U.S. restaurants.

The factory farms owned by Cargill and others help reduce contamination of chickens in some ways, but Heffernan said they also congregate hundreds of thousands of birds, which could serve as a tinderbox for the highly contagious disease should the virus enter.

The risk of the H5N1 strain spreading also is heightened by today´s speedy international travel. Tourists in Thailand, for example, flock to rural areas to ride elephants or float on bamboo rafts down the River Kwai. The tourists tromp through mud containing chicken feces, which is one way to spread the virus, at rural attractions before boarding planes to head home, quite possibly with bits of monsoon mud in their shoe treads.

Experts worry about that. U.S. poultry companies such as Cargill and Willmar, Minn.-based Jennie-O Turkey Store have strengthened biosecurity to prevent contamination from people who have visited live-bird markets, whether in Thailand or the Twin Cities.

"As people move around the world, and the food products move around the world," Heffernan said, "the system we have today is just made for making this an international epidemic."

Jody lanard is acknowledged for send us this review, China shares some similarity with Thailand, but also have it´s own unique features. Will present you with ´Facts of Flu in China´ in the short future.-----Moderator

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