Bird Flu Fears Rattle Turkey's Chicken Capital

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 16, 2006

MUDURNU, Turkey -- It's not the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty, but nothing says more about the essence of this town than the 12-foot-tall plaster chicken that stands outside the Mudurnu poultry plant in this green Turkish valley.

Mudurnu, about 125 miles east of Istanbul, is Turkey's chicken capital. Besides the ultramodern Mudurnu plant, low-rise chicken houses and rickety coops dot the landscape. Townsfolk speak with pride of their white-feathered breed, which they say is the tastiest in all Turkey.

But these days, the pride is tinged with fear and uncertainty. A plastic bucket at the entrance of the poultry plant is filled with disinfectant meant to be sprayed on cars that enter from outside, hoping to prevent an outbreak of bird flu.

"We are like a fortress here," said Orhan Ozdemir, a worker at the plant. "We have to protect our chickens at all costs. So far, we have been lucky."

During the past two weeks, three children have died of bird flu and 19 people have been infected in Turkey, raising fears that at some point the disease, which so far experts believe has been contracted mostly through contact with infected birds, could be passed from person to person.

In response, agricultural officials ordered the destruction of poultry in a dozen provinces from the far east to the Mediterranean coast, anywhere an infected fowl has been discovered. So far, 455,000 birds have been culled nationwide.

Special measures to enclose poultry and disinfect vehicles traveling from farm to farm have been instituted in such places as Mudurnu, where no birds have taken ill.

There has also been an economic cost, one familiar to farmers and poultry producers in affected countries in East Asia. Chicken sales, part of a $2.5 billion-a-year industry in Turkey, were reported recently to have fallen by half since October, when the flu first attacked chickens near Turkey's west coast. In Mudurnu, an abandoned chicken ranch not far from the plaster statue attests to closures that have taken place all over the country.

In the two weeks since the new Turkish outbreak, sales declined by another 70 percent, according to Zuhal Dastan, director of a new association of poultry producers who hope to convince the public that Turkish fowl is fit. "We are standing in the middle of a storm," he said.

"The measures have been taken. Our new chicks are vaccinated. They always are," Ozdemir said. "But at the moment, sales are almost nil."

The plant was recently bought by new owners who had hoped to soon launch a new brand, "Ilcem." But with the chicken scare, production is at half-capacity, and the plant is looking for a way to make sure that the public understands that its chickens, at least, are disease-free. "It's a hard sell," Ozdemir said.

Government officials recently met with representatives of chicken producers and agreed to set up a committee to study the losses in the industry.

Besides such facilities as the Mudurnu plant, which can turn out about 600,000 pounds of chicken a week, there is a whole world of cottage producers whose way of life is under threat. Turkey presents scenes of pastoral bliss that are but a memory in the United States. Little old ladies in head scarves toss feed to bobbing hens, who return the favor by producing farm-fresh eggs. Children cradle the birds in their arms and sing to them.

In a countryside where possession of a few heads of milk-producing cattle provides a livelihood for large families, eggs produced on the side are welcome nutritional supplements. Ozdemir estimated that 80 percent of Mudurnu's 6,000 households raise chickens.

Down in a hollow just two miles from the plant, Hilmi Dirik, who owns and milks seven cows for a living, worried that he might have to give up his five chickens. "We haven't touched them for a week, and we keep them in this coop and don't let them roam," he said outside his bare, concrete house in the Karacakaya neighborhood.

"The authorities told us not even to eat the eggs. We throw them away. But then I read where cooked food is not dangerous. So what is the truth?" he asked. Last week, village leaders, under orders from Agriculture Ministry officials, took a bird census in Karacakaya and advised everyone not to handle chickens.

For a subsistence farmer, this spelled a potential nightmare down the road. "Suppose they tell us no more chickens?" asked Dirik, who has two daughters. "And then what if our cows get sick, and they say we can't raise them either? Just what are we supposed to do?"

The World Health Organization confirmed that the H5N1 strain of the virus that infected Turkey's fowl and its human victims is a more infectious version than most that have cropped up in East Asia. In at least one case, the virus was able to bind more easily to human cells than cells in birds, WHO reported. The agency compared the strain to others found in Hong Kong in 2003 and Vietnam in 2005.

In a meeting in Tokyo, Asian countries agreed to speed preparations for a pandemic by upgrading laboratories and training military officials for possible quarantine duty. The European Union pledged $100 million in aid for developing countries to fight bird flu. "Prevention is better than a cure. The disease is not only a threat to health, but where it strikes, it jeopardizes economic growth and poverty alleviation," the E.U.'s external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said at a news conference in Brussels.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company