Chicken Sick

In July of 1997, a strange case walked through the door of Dr. Ritchie Shoemaker’s office on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “This fellow had been waterskiing for about an hour on the Pocomoke River,” recalls the family practitioner. “Within three hours of that, he was suffering from pounding headaches. Within six hours, he had flulike muscle aches and trouble with his memory. And by the next morning, he had about 30 dime-sized lesions on his lower extremities.”

Dr. Shoemaker has counted some 60 similarly afflicted patients since that summer day. The common denominator? All were exposed to Chesapeake Bay waterways and to a mysterious microbe called Pfiesteria piscicida. Scientists say it feeds off the heavy load of nutrients contained in waste runoff. Although no permanent damage has been reported by people infected with the organism, the area’s fish have not been so lucky. The Maryland Department of Agriculture reports that tens of thousands have died; last year, the state’s seafood industry suffered an estimated $50 million loss.

But what began a year ago as the scenario for an apocalyptic disaster movie has since shifted into the realm of political theater. Scientists believe the outbreak originated from chicken manure runoff from rain-soaked farmlands. Now conservationists, the Senate Agriculture Committee, the EPA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are embroiled in a dispute over who should police the handling of farm waste.

Last year, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the ranking minority member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, introduced a bill proposing national standards for handling animal waste. The bill calls on the EPA and USDA to work together to come up with regulations for handling waste. Although the EPA has traditionally enforced pollution regulations, Andy Fish, deputy chief counsel for the Democratic staff of the committee, says Harkin’s bill would give the USDA a new enforcement role, making it responsible for policing how manure is handled. But the USDA’s involvement troubles conservationists like Mike Hirshfield of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “The USDA has always been very sympathetic to farmers,” he says.

Giants such as Tyson Foods—which alone controls 29 percent of the poultry industry—are in high dudgeon over Harkin’s proposals. Richard Lobb, communications director for the National Broiler Council, an industry association representing 95 percent of the poultry producers in America, argues that the existence of chicken farms near some of the pollution proves nothing. “The science is not in yet,” says Lobb. “Proximity does not equal causation.” Lobb says the techniques for handling manure actually improved during the past decade. Many big producers now demand that contractors conduct land analyses and prepare “nutrient management plans” before any chicks are delivered, he says.

The challenge of promoting responsibility within an increasingly concentrated and politically powerful corporate structure—the poultry industry has consolidated rapidly in recent years—could be the biggest challenge for legislators bent on creating a squadron of manure police.

Meanwhile, water-sports enthusiasts in the rest of the U.S. should beware: The mutated microbe has turned up in waters as far south as North Carolina and Florida.