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Smuggled China poultry tracked after Mich. raid

by 5m Editor
13 July 2006, at 12:00am

MICHIGAN - Michigan health officials said on Wednesday they were working to track frozen Chinese poultry smuggled into the United States and found in a Detroit-area warehouse in a series of raids over the past month.

Smuggled China poultry tracked after Mich. raid - MICHIGAN - Michigan health officials said on Wednesday they were working to track frozen Chinese poultry smuggled into the United States and found in a Detroit-area warehouse in a series of raids over the past month.

Officials said there was no sign the frozen chicken, duck and pigeon carcasses -- some packed with entrails intact -- had been contaminated with the deadly avian influenza virus.

But state officials also said no testing for bird flu had been carried out by the federal food safety regulators who had taken the lead in an investigation that began in early June but was not made public until this week. The contraband poultry, some labeled as tilapia in an apparent bid to skirt an import ban, appears to have been imported in New York or New Jersey, state officials said.

At least 2,000 pounds of illegally imported food was seized in late June and early July, state officials said. Troy, Michigan-based Tinway Corp., the food wholesaler at the center of the probe, could face criminal or civil charges, officials said.

The owner of the facility has not been identified or located, but a manager has been cooperating with investigators, said Brad Deacon, emergency coordinator for Michigan's Agriculture Department. State investigators were in the process of getting a list of the 300 or so customers of the Asian-food wholesaler and contacting each individually, Deacon said.

Poultry meat is generally not imported into the United States from Asia because the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not cleared processing plants in the region. The frozen Chinese bird raised additional concern because they came from areas already affected by bird flu, state officials said.

USDA investigators first raided the Troy, Michigan warehouse in early June, state officials said. But state regulators were not told of the investigation until June 20, when they were tipped off by Genessee County health authorities who had been warned by the USDA about a restaurant also run by the owner of the warehouse, officials said.

State officials then joined the USDA in two raids on the warehouse on June 27 and July 6. In the final raid, it appeared that some of the food that federal investigators had ordered held for safety reasons was missing, they said. "It appeared that some of the embargoed material had been switched," Katherine Fedder, director of the food and poultry division of Michigan's Agriculture Department said in a hastily arranged news conference.

The Detroit Free Press broke news of the investigation on Wednesday based on e-mail sent to members of a Michigan task force intended to coordinate the state's response to a future bird flu outbreak. The piecemeal nature of the disclosure angered local health officials, who said they were kept in the dark about a potential health threat.

"This is very frustrating to say the least," George Miller, chief health officer for Oakland County, near Detroit said. "I think we have got to have better coordination between the feds and the state and local governments." A USDA spokesman could not be reached for comment.

The rapid spread of the H5N1 bird flu virus from Asia to the Middle East, Europe and Africa has sparked fears that it could mutate into a highly infectious strain that could cause a human influenza pandemic. Since late 2003 there have been 229 human infections of H5N1 and 131 deaths.

Poultry meat is not considered a high risk since cooking it destroys the virus, said Richard Fulton, an avian disease expert and a member of the Michigan bird flu task force. But Fulton, a Michigan State University professor, said the USDA would also probably have to begin testing any contraband poultry seen at risk in order to address health concerns. "If nothing else, you had better test just to see what's there," he said.

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