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US preparing for bird flu -agriculture secretary

Written by: Staff
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KANSAS CITY, Mo., Mar 4 (Reuters) US Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns today said the United States was preparing for a likely outbreak of avian flu and assured consumers that poultry remains safe to eat. ''There is no way to put a big cage around the United States. I think it is fair to assume we'll deal with ... avian influenza,'' said Johanns, who was attending a pork producers' meeting in Kansas City. ''We could see it in domestic flocks as well as (wild) birds.'' The H5N1 bird flu virus has killed birds in more than 30 countries in the Middle East, Asia, Europe and Africa. It has spread to 14 new countries in the past month and has infected 174 people since 2003, killing 94 of them.

Scientists say H5N1 is mutating steadily and may eventually acquire the changes it needs to be easily transmitted from human to human. Because people lack any immunity to it, it could sweep the world in a matter of weeks or months, killing tens of millions and bringing economies to their knees.

Johanns said the United States has been conducting exercises and making plans to deal with bird flu in the United States even as US officials work with other countries to encourage consumers to continue poultry consumption, albeit by using proper cooking methods.

''Poultry is safe to eat. Cooking poultry will kill the virus. It is as simple as that,'' said Johanns.

France's poultry sector, the biggest in Europe, is now losing 48 million dollars a month as bird flu hits sales at home and abroad, French officials said yesterday.

REUTERS DH RAI0235

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