With concerns rising about an outbreak of avian influenza in the Midwest and the possibility migrating birds could spread the disease, Delaware State Fair officials in June banned ducks and geese from this year’s exhibitions.

It will be held from July 23 through Aug. 1 in Harrington. Fair officials said chickens, turkeys and quail, among other fowl, still would be allowed.

Delaware’s Department of Agriculture spokesman Dan Shortridge said the state has adopted a “better safe than sorry” approach to the possibility of an outbreak.

“While we have had no avian influenza cases in the state or in our wild bird flyway, Delaware is fully prepared if it is detected here,” Shortridge said.

“But we don’t have a crystal ball,” he added, “so we are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.”

So far, the precautions have worked, Shortridge said, as the state has not had an avian flu outbreak since 2004.

“Delaware has been applying the lessons learned from that incident to what we’re preparing for now, including such areas as logistics, communications, staffing and decontamination,” he said.

Delaware working to educate

The threat to the nation’s poultry industry was reason enough to hold a July 8 hearing before the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, on which Sen. Tom Carper serves as ranking member.

Included among the witnesses in the almost two-hour session were Jack Gelb, of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Delaware, and Scott Schneider, a Wisconsin poultry farmer who lost his entire 200,000-bird flock of egg-laying hens to a strain of the H5N1, or Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, virus.

Carper said he was particularly concerned because Sussex County produces more broiler chickens than any other county in the United States, some $2.7 billion in economic value to the state.

Schneider told the committee hearing he expects to lose at least $500,000 in revenue by the end of the year because of the flu outbreak.

To counter the possibility of a flu epidemic among Delaware’s poultry growers, the Department of Agriculture with its Maryland counterpart has been working to educate commercial operators, about biosecurity measures.

The state also has worked with backyard flock owners through Delaware State University and others in a direct outreach educational program.

This includes cleaning and disinfecting clothing, equipment, cages and tools, ensuring birds are not in contact with other flocks or wild birds, not sharing equipment with neighboring farms and inspecting flocks often for signs of infection.

Outbreak potential ‘very real’

Fighting the possibility of infections is a key part of operations at Georgie Cartanza’s Freedom Farm and Soul Shine Farm, east of Dover.

Cartanza, who was recognized with the Department of Agriculture’s 2014 Environmental Stewardship Award, said warnings are posted on signs. As soon as anyone enters her property,

“they’re they first thing you’ll see,” Cartanza said. In addition, signs on each of her four chicken houses warn visitors of the risk, and anyone entering the building must first step into a disinfecting shoe bath.

“Because the flu is carried by migratory birds, you could step in their droppings and bring the virus into the chicken house,” she said. “There’s a real potential for that.”

Cartanza takes these precautions seriously, saying the company for which she raises chickens has a longstanding policy of destroying a flock if a flu infection is confirmed.

“They want to eradicate it before it spreads,” she said. “When a flock is tested, it’s quarantined, and if the infection is confirmed, the flock would have to be depopulated on site.”

That would mean an operation the size of her farm could lose more than 70,000 birds, which would be euthanized and composted.

A typical poultry operation such as Freedom Farm and Soul Shine Farm probably would lose more than $150,000 in revenue, she said. It would cost the poultry company, which bears the responsibility for the cleanup, about $900,000 she said.

Despite efforts to secure against the threat, Delaware’s poultry industry remains at risk, Carper said.

“The possibility of a new outbreak, even here along the East Coast, is very real,” he said.