Despite Health Concerns, Live Bird Markets Thrive in U.S. Cities

Jun 29, 2006 9:52am

ABC News’ Andrew Katz and Fiore Mastroianni contributed to this report. The threat of an avian flu pandemic may be closer to home than you think — perhaps even lurking in your own neighborhood. Unsanitary open-air bird markets in many U.S. cities are poorly monitored and could be the next ground zero for an outbreak. The United States has no comprehensive surveillance plan to monitor the poultry sold in these markets, according to a report released by the Department of Agriculture earlier this month. Despite these concerns, live bird markets and other "off farm" environments thrive in major cities across the Northeast. One such metropolitan location is Flushing, Queens in New York. Cramped containers and frequent contact with humans provide the perfect setting for transmission of disease. Workers pull chickens from cages without gloves. The occasional employee dons a sanitary mask, acting only as a reminder of what could happen in the event of a health crisis. Owners from several Flushing bird shops told ABC News that the birds came from as far away as Brazil and as close as Pennsylvania. And some owners admitted they do not even know where their fowl came from. The USDA report also identified gaps in the current system, in which states voluntarily report their surveillance of domestic and wild birds. Mandatory testing of live bird markets is not required by all states, according to a spokeswoman for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Karen Eggert. Twenty-one states participate in a voluntary bird market surveillance program, Eggert added. With respect to the threat of a future epidemic, Eggert said the USDA is prepared for the worst but hoping for the best. "This disease has moved quickly in different parts of the world, and so we have our strongest safeguards in place so that we don’t experience it."

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