ANNAPOLIS – Avian flu restrictions will be lifted within days if no new cases are found, Maryland Department of Agriculture said Friday.
By Monday, farmers could have leeway to move poultry and litter and gather and sell live birds for the first time since the flu’s February appearance in two Delaware flocks.
“Cautious optimism” is what farmers feel right now, said Joe Chisholm, farmer and president of Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. “Hopefully we’ll get back to generating cash.”
Lifting the quarantine will also allow officials to pursue plans to prevent future outbreaks in the state’s multimillion-dollar industry and address other biosecurity concerns.
“Clearly the last 60 days has taught us a great deal about real-time practice of emergency measures,” said Deputy Secretary John Brooks.
Brooks praised the “cooperative spirit” of Maryland, Delaware and federal officials, as well as Delmarva poultry producers.
“This has been a difficult time and a real wake-up call for all of us involved with poultry and agricultural businesses and hobbies across the state,” said Secretary Lewis Riley in a prepared statement. “We thank everyone for their quick response, cooperation and vigilance in containing this avian influenza incident.”
Chisholm also lauded the “unprecedented cooperation” among stakeholders, but said farmers fear a return of the economically devastating disease.
The H7N2 strain of the virus was first discovered on farms in Delaware’s Kent and Sussex counties, and appeared a month later on a Maryland farm in Worcester County, some 60 miles away.
Maryland officials were mystified by the flu’s reappearance after weeks of testing, restricted farm movement, disinfection procedures and other measures.
Though Monday will mark 30 influenza-free days on the 252 tested farms within six miles of the infected site, officials warn growers to be careful.
“We should not let down our guard,” Riley said. “We all need to keep a sharp lookout for illness in our flocks, call in any unusual signs, and practice good biosecurity measures.”
Now that the crisis seems contained, officials are looking toward preventing future outbreaks.
A “postmortem” will be conducted to establish a regional response to avian flu and other animal health issues. In addition, farmers will be trained in biosecurity practices and regulations will be drafted to protect the industry.
Several other countries banned U.S. poultry products after the flu outbreaks and the federal government is working to reestablish the industry’s reputation.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich recently directed the Agriculture Department and the Department of Business and Economic Development to assess the economic impact of the outbreak on agriculture, which has a $17.6 billion impact on the state’s economy.
“Certainly, it will take some time to recoup economic losses,” said Brooks, but “I look forward to working together on actions that will further protect agriculture.”