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Poultry company defends W.Va. fertilizer ban

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- An international poultry breeding company said last week it wants to ban litter-based fertilizers around its West Virginia farms because they can spread disease that may harm birds and people.

"Our concern is with the use of poultry litter on land within a three-mile radius of our turkey farms," Sandi Hofmann, Aviagen's marketing and administration director, said in a statement to the Sunday Gazette-Mail.

"Poultry litter can harbor pathogens that may not be killed by treatment, and some treatments can even give false negative results when the litter is tested," Hofmann said. "Establishing a quarantine zone around Aviagen's turkey farms is important to keep these pathogens from being introduced via the air, dust, beetles or rodents."

Dr. John R. Tomlinson Jr., a veterinarian at Fairlea Animal Hospital in Lewisburg, opposes Aviagen's opposition to local farmers using fertilizers made from sanitized litter from chickens and other animals to grow grass and other plants on their farms.

Aviagen wants to ban the use of those fertilizers within three miles of all its farms in West Virginia, warning litter-based fertilizers can spread a variety of dangerous diseases.

Aviagen Turkeys operates 22 farms and two hatcheries in the Greenbrier Valley. The company is owned by the Germany-based EW Group, but its American operations are based in Lewisburg. It has contracts or rental agreements with eight local farmers and provides more than 180 jobs, according to the company.

Tomlinson runs a 900-acre farm that raises about 1,000 feeder cattle annually. Using cheaper litter-based fertilizers, he said, saved his business $69,000 last year.

Alternative petroleum-based fertilizers, Tomlinson said, cost substantially more than litter-based fertilizers.

Tomlinson also criticizes the West Virginia Department of Agriculture's proposed "emergency rule" that he said would prohibit the use of poultry-litter fertilizers on 18,000 acres near Aviagen's farms.

On its website, the Department of Agriculture states, "Primary breeder farms [like Aviagen's farms] adhere to strict bio-security programs to prevent introduction of diseases, such as salmonella, mycoplasmas and Avian influenza, which can be spread through poultry and swine litter."

Aviagen's website says the company pioneers "the development and implementation of progressive bio-security programs for chickens and turkeys."

"Aviagen Turkeys takes its responsibility in the food supply chain seriously and realizes that keeping pathogens out of the food chain begins with the primary breeder," Hofmann said.

"Our key focus is to keep flocks free from all infections including Avian influenza, salmonella and mycoplasma. If a flock or farm tests positive, the company could face quarantines or export restrictions.

"Therefore, the company has a rigorous bio-security program designed to prevent the introduction of these pathogens onto its farms. The implementation of strict protocols on the movement of people, stock and equipment within the production operation ensures that the risk of infection is considerably reduced.

"Having poultry litter spread on land around the turkey farms would add a level of risk that we can't afford to take," Hoffman warned.

Dr. Robert Edson, Aviagen's vice president of operations in Lewisburg, said the three diseases "are of little danger to human beings. But they affect the animals. Avian influenza would do two things. The milder stages would cause the turkey breeding hens to stop laying eggs.

"The more important impact would be that if our turkeys should be infected with Avain influenza, our international trading partners would quarantine our operations and not buy our products. One outbreak in West Virginia could have a serious impact on our trade situation," Edson said during a telephone interview Wednesday.

"Our international trading partners expect us to have a salmonella-negative product," Edson added. "So we strive to keep our farms chain salmonella-negative in hatching turkeys for breeding stock."

Edson also said, "We are not against the sale of litter-based fertilizers. We are not trying to impose any kind of trade embargo on anybody." He said the company only wants to keep possible contamination from those fertilizers away from its breeding operations near Lewisburg.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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