Michigan officials track smuggled Chinese poultry

Jul 13, 2006 (CIDRAP News) – State agriculture and health officials in Michigan are searching Chinese restaurants and Asian grocery stores for frozen poultry products smuggled from China in violation of an import ban sparked by avian influenza.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) told the Detroit Free Press yesterday that on Jun 5 it had seized 1,940 pounds of illegal poultry believed to be from China from a warehouse in Troy, Mich., according to a story published today. The smuggled frozen poultry was packed in unmarked boxes or in boxes labeled as tilapia fish. The products included geese, ducks, and chickens that had intestines intact.

USDA officials said they destroyed the product and that it was not tested for avian flu because it would not have served a food-safety purpose. The agency says that as long as poultry is cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees, it should not pose a threat.

Brad Deacon, emergency management coordinator for the Michigan Department of Agriculture, told the Free Press, "'We have seen no indication that any of this material was contaminated with avian influenza."' But he and other state officials conceded that there is no way to know for certain because federal inspectors destroyed all of the poultry they recovered without testing it.

State officials became involved in tracking the illegal products Jun 22 when they learned of the USDA probe, according to the Free Press. When state and federal officials returned to the warehouse on Jun 27 they impounded five boxes of illegal products, including goose intestines and pig carcasses.

The USDA is continuing its investigation of the warehouse owner, the Free Press reported. Officials are considering pressing charges against warehouse employees who are suspected of tampering with the products that were impounded in Jun 27. When officials went back to the warehouse to destroy the products, they found that the goose intestines had been swapped for chicken parts.

In other avian flu news, the top animal health official in Indonesia has been reassigned because of his agency's poor response to avian influenza outbreaks, Agence France Presse (AFP) reported today. An agriculture ministry spokesperson said that animal health director Syamsul Bahri had been assigned to another post. Though he declined AFP's request for comments on Bahri's reassignment, the minister told a Korean newspaper that one of the reasons was the agency's poor performance in addressing the avian influenza threat.

Indonesia has 40 confirmed fatal cases of H5N1 avian flu, along with one recent fatal case that has not been confirmed by a foreign laboratory. The number of deaths in Indonesia is second only to Vietnam, which has not had any deaths in 2006. Critics have said that Indonesia has been slow to respond to bird flu and has not implemented widespread culls that have reduced the spread of the disease in other countries.

In Romania, for example, aggressive culling appears to be paying off. The USDA Foreign Agricultural Service office in Sofia, Romania, reported that Romania culled almost 1 million fowl in May. Most were on commercial farms. The USDA report, detailed in a Bloomberg News story Jul 11, said the H5N1 virus was circulating in 18 of Romania's counties in May, but by the end of June it was circulating in only four counties.

In October, Romania became the first European nation to report an outbreak of avian influenza. The avian influenza outbreak caused the demand for poultry in Romania to drop by about 80%.

Meanwhile in China, a court in Beijing has jailed a farmer who reported avian flu outbreaks to the central government, according to a Jul 11 Reuters report. The man has been sentenced to three and a half years in prison for fraud and blackmail.

Quio Songju, a goose farmer in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu, reported bird flu outbreaks in his area in October and was arrested a month later. The reports turned out to be correct, but the Reuters report says the Chinese media reported that the prosecution maintains that Songju was involved in a swindling scheme.

Media outlets have recently reported a Chinese crackdown on the news media for reporting on emergencies such as natural disasters or disease outbreaks without government authorization. China was roundly criticized for covering up avian influenza incidents, particularly during the early outbreaks.

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