Article by Elisabeth Rosenthal, International Herald Tribune
Published: 14 April 2006
MILAN Last month, two vans of police inspectors, undercover in jeans and sneakers, pulled up at a storefront near the Piazza Morselli on a sensitive raid, a matter of national well-being and security. Their target was not terrorists, weapons or drugs. It was smuggled Asian poultry - a product at risk for carrying bird flu.
While sorting through a refrigerator at the back of the Chinese grocery store, the inspectors found their quarry: bags of unlabeled refrigerated duck feet that General Emilio Borghini, head of the Military Police Health Service, deemed "suspicious."
A similar raid at a warehouse here a few months ago yielded three million packages of chicken meat smuggled from China in unmarked packages, even though such imports have been banned in the European Union since 2002.
There is increasing evidence, experts say, that a thriving international trade in smuggled poultry products - including birds, chicks, eggs, meat, feathers and other products - is making a substantial contribution to the spread of the H5N1 bird flu virus.
Poultry smuggling turned out to be a huge and previously largely overlooked business, perhaps second only to narcotics in international contraband, experts and government officials believe. H5N1 is a robust virus that survives not just in live birds but in frozen meat, feathers, bones and on used cages - although it dies with cooking.
"No one knows the real numbers, but they are large; behind illegal drug traffic, illegal animals are No. 2," said Timothy Moore, an official at the University of Nebraska who has advised the U.S. government on agricultural disaster planning. "And there is no doubt in my mind that this will play a prominent role in the spread of this disease. It looks to be the main way it is spreading in some parts of the world."
Illegal trade seriously undermines the bans on poultry products from bird flu-infected countries that many governments have enacted in the hopes of stemming spread of the disease.
"In spite of the EU ban we are still seizing Chinese poultry products," Borghini said.
Many experts are convinced that the illegal import of infected chicks introduced the virus into Nigeria, setting off Africa's first and largest epidemic, which is limited to poultry farms and has not affected wild birds.
This week, Vietnamese health officials said chickens smuggled over the border from China had reintroduced bird flu into their nation, which had reported no cases for four months.
No one has any precise sense of the extent of the trade - or the importance of it role in spreading bird flu - because until recently, poultry smuggling was regarded mostly as an economic nuisance.
"I would love to have a map of illegal trade - but I'm embarrassed to say we don't have a good handle on it," said Juan Lubroth, a senior veterinarian at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. "We all know it occurs and we are worried, but what we see confiscated is only the tip of the iceberg."
The police and experts say the trade is hard to control because such massive amounts cross borders in trucks, carts, planes and boats each day. Smuggled meat from Asia is often loaded in containers with a mish-mash of other goods - from clothes and toys to furniture. Labels indicating the port of origin are easily falsified.
"We're aware that the risk to public health can be hidden in these containers, but thousands of containers pass through Italian ports and it is impossible to inspect them all," said Mario Pantano, director of the Police Health Service in southern Italy, who said his staff had found hidden poultry products stuffed into shoes.
Late last year, his team discovered a shipment of 260 tons of meat scattered among several containers transiting at a port in Calabria in southern Italy, destined for the tiny East European country of Moldova. Because of improper paperwork, the inspectors started asking questions and determined that the shipment had come from China. They worried the smuggled meat would soon be in Italy.
"The meat was officially destined for countries on the doorstep of the European Union, and we knew that the chickens could be relabeled and illegally re-enter Italy for our consumption," Pantano said, noting that such "triangulation" was known to occur, but experts had little sense how common it was.
Although many countries attribute the spread of H5N1 to migratory fowl, many ornithologists say the evidence often points to smuggling. "We believe it is spread by both bird migration and trade, but that trade - particularly illegal trade - is more important," said Wade Hagemeijer, a bird flu expert at the Netherlands-based Wetlands International, which has been studying the role of migrating birds.
"Unfortunately it's very difficult to get good information about smuggling, and it's convenient to blame wild birds, since then no one has to admit that their borders are out of control."
Although bird flu has now been detected on many farms in several African nations, there have been only a handful of reports in wild birds on the continent, supporting the notion that trade is most important there. "We're been looking for it in wild birds for the last two months and it is surprising that we've come up with zero," Lubroth said, noting that scattered outbreaks in the wild might be particularly hard to detect in Africa.
The effect of smuggling can sometimes be direct, when sick birds are smuggled onto farms. The H5N1 virus strain found on the farms involved in Nigeria's first outbreak, in northern Kano state, closely matched those found on Chinese farms, Hagemeijer said.
Nancy Morgan, an economist at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, said illegal trade could have "easily" introduced bird flu into Nigeria and Egypt, the two African countries with the most extensive bird flu problems. "In developing countries, the border controls are marginal at best, because of weak institutions and corruption," she said. However, she added, "As long as there's economic incentive, it will happen."
Producers in Egypt and Nigeria frequently import day-old chicks for about 20 cents a bird, she said, because it was easier to buy them than to master the delicate technology of hatching. In Nigeria, 100 percent were smuggled and therefore not inspected, because all imports were banned by the Nigerian government to protect its young domestic industry.
"The government policies created the illegal trade," said an official at the U.S. Embassy in Lagos who spoke on condition of anonymity, adding that some products certainly came from Asia. "The industry was growing at 8 percent annually and it needed imports, from parent stock to hatching eggs. Everything comes in illegally."
Since H5N1 lives through most slaughtering and shipping, smuggled poultry products of many types can bring the virus into a country: infected chicken parts in feed or fertilizer, secondhand cages used to house infected birds, or cheap meat that ends up being used on a farm or in a home where other birds are kept.
"These routes are all legitimate to worry about, all possible, all likely," said Moore, who noted an outbreak of a much milder avian virus in the United States was caused when straw containing infected chicken feces came onto a farm.
The main concern is China, a country with a serious avian influenza problem and also formerly a major exporter of chicken and poultry products. There is extensive illegal trade between China and Africa, experts say.
In the developing world, the illegal trade often has economic roots, as businesspeople try to avoid duties. But there is a strong cultural element as well. For example, Asian immigrants seek out poultry products, like feet, that may not be available in the West. The illegal meat that has been seized in Italy has been at Chinese stores or warehouses servicing Chinese restaurants.
Several months ago, Milan's health inspectors noticed that all of the Chinese restaurants in Milan bought their poultry from a single distributor. When they conducted a surprise raid at the warehouse of Euro Food International in Milan, they discovered three million packages of meat from China.