Saturday, July 15, 2006

Goose Parts From Bird Flu-Ridden China Lost in U.S. (Update1)

Goose Parts From Bird Flu-Ridden China Lost in U.S. (Update1)
July 14 (Bloomberg) --

U.S. inspectors are probing the disappearance of four boxes of goose intestines smuggled from China, where bird flu is spreading.

The Department of Agriculture had tagged about 100 pounds of goose guts, a delicacy used in some Chinese recipes, for destruction before they disappeared last week from a Troy, Michigan, warehouse, officials said today. Agency inspectors previously found about 2,000 pounds of frozen poultry shipped illegally from China at the same warehouse.

Smuggling of poultry products poses a risk for avian influenza, which has infected 230 people in 10 countries in Asia and the Middle East, killing 132. Frozen products pose less risk because they aren't likely to spread virus to other birds, said Joseph Domenech, chief veterinary officer for the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, based in Rome.

``Nothing can be sure and everything can happen,'' Domenech said in a telephone interview late yesterday. ``This is smuggling and it's totally uncontrolled.''

People can be infected with H5N1 through close contact with infected live birds or by eating them, according to the World Health Organization in Geneva. Proper cooking kills the virus, and no cases of transmission from cooked food have been recorded, the health agency's Web site said.

``We have no evidence to lead us to believe this is of concern to consumers,'' said Lisa Wallenda-Picard, a spokesman for the Agriculture Department, in a telephone interview today. ``We have no reason to believe this was infected by avian influenza, and we have no reason to think this is on the average American's dinner plate.

`Small Amount'

``We're talking about a small amount of product in question,'' Wallenda-Picard said.

None of the seized meat was tested to see whether it was contaminated with H5N1, said Karen Eggert, a spokeswoman for USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, in a telephone interview today.

Michigan health and safety officials are now conducting a sweep of about 65 food import warehouses in the southeast part of the state to look for more smuggled imports.

The discovery of the smuggled birds has prompted a debate over testing. Brad Deacon, emergency management coordinator for the Michigan Department of Health, said that if more Chinese bird parts are found, they should be tested for bird flu. Eggert said the agency is not convinced testing is necessary.

`Know There's Disease'

``Our purpose in testing would be to determine whether or not there was disease in that country,'' Eggert said. ``We know there's disease in that country, and we've placed restrictions on that country.''

The USDA seized and destroyed more than 326,000 pounds of illegally shipped meat last year, Eggert said.

``That would require a lot of testing on each individual piece that we receive,'' she said. ``Unless there's some sort of scientific trigger to believe this meat needs to be tested for a reason, and that's rare, we're not going to test it.''

Thousands of domesticated birds, including chickens, ducks and geese, are shipped illegally in airports in Europe every year, and health officials have said they are also concerned about H5N1 bird flu in smuggled poultry in Africa, Domenech said. Restrictions and surveillance in the U.S. probably keep the risk lower, he said.

The Michigan warehouse case shows why health officials say arrival of the virus in the U.S. is inevitable, said Steve Brozak, an analyst with WBB Securities Inc. in New Jersey. He previously worked as a military liaison to the United Nations.

`Troubling Trend'

``It's a troubling trend when you're looking at the smuggling of any kind of livestock that might be vulnerable to H5N1,'' he said in a telephone interview today. ``This verifies that the arrival of H5N1 in America is a certainty. It's just a matter of time.''

Since 2003, H5N1 has spread in birds from Asia to Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Millions of birds in China have died of H5N1 or been culled to prevent its spread. Scientists also have found infected wild, migratory geese that may have carried the infection to other parts of Asia.

Health officials are concerned about H5N1 because avian influenza strains have been known to gain the ability to spread quickly in people. A pandemic that killed as many as 50 million people worldwide in 1918 and 1919 is thought to have started spreading in birds.

2,000 Pounds

The Michigan warehouse was targeted by an U.S. probe that on June 5 found almost 2,000 pounds of uncooked, frozen poultry that appeared, based on the markings on the boxes, to have been shipped from China, said the USDA's Wallenda-Picard. The U.S. bans importing uncooked poultry from China, and the meat was incinerated on June 9.

USDA and Michigan health officials returned to the warehouse June 27 and found five boxes containing 150 pounds of smuggled goose intestines, and pieces of suckling pig. The boxes were bagged and tagged for destruction, Wallenda-Picard said. When they returned to the warehouse July 5, they found that the goose intestines had been replaced with chicken parts, she said.

Michigan health officials are following up with at least 35 restaurants and other customers whose names were found in paperwork at the Tin Way warehouse to see if they bought smuggled meat, said Deacon, from the state's health department.

Health officials are concerned about H5N1 because avian influenza strains have been known to gain the ability to spread quickly in people. A pandemic that killed as many as 50 million people worldwide in 1918 and 1919 is thought to have started spreading in birds.



To contact the reporter on this story:
John Lauerman in Boston at jlauerman@bloomberg.net.

Last Updated: July 14, 2006 11:10 EDT

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