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An epidemic seems to be hatching on local poultry farms here.

Puzzled by what was described by local agriculture officials as poor diet in local poultry stocks, poultry farmers are now questioning whether the mortality rate among their birds is as a result of something more serious.

Farmers are disputing claims made by a high-powered agriculture team that the cause of the rapid mortality among 2 to 4-week-old broilers may have arisen from poor dietary practices. {{more}}

One farmer, Kelvin Pierre, is publicly challenging the statements made by the agriculture officials. According to Pierre, the problem is “wider, higher and deeper” than the findings of the pathologists.

A press conference, held two weeks ago, attended by Agriculture Minister Montgomery Daniel, Chief Agricultural Officer Philmore Isaacs, Chief Veterinary Officer Dr Kathian Hackshaw, Eastern Caribbean Group of Companies (ECGC) Marketing manager Martin LaBorde, and Avian Pathologist Dr Richard Julian had briefly put the matter to rest with the statement that the Avian Bird Flu outbreak in Asia – a concern of poultry farmers – was not the reason for the birds’ ailment.

They made reference to Dr Julian’s findings, which pointed to high levels of sodium from supplements, vitamins and antibiotics as the most likely cause of the nutritional deficiency crippling the local poultry industry.

Since 2004, local poultry farmers have lost close to 80 per cent of their livestock to heart disease, rickets and other ailments. This strange occurrence was what led Pierre, an Agricultural Science Lecturer at the St. Vincent Technical College, to conduct his investigation into the crisis.

Pierre who has been rearing broilers for some 10 years conducted his experiment on several batches of birds using different feeding patterns.

During a visit to Searchlight’s office on Wednesday he explained how his experiment was carried out.

He noted that his first batch of birds, bought from the local hatchery, was fed with feed from ECGC with no supplement added to the diet. In less than three weeks time, more than 75 per cent of the birds died – all showing the same symptoms of weak bones and “spra” legs.

He went on to explain that a second batch was imported from Gale’s Hatchery in Barbados and was kept at a distance of about 1,000 yards from batch one. They were fed with feed from ECGC and no supplements were added to the diet. Almost all the birds died showing the same symptoms as in batch one.

Pierre revealed that a third batch was brought in from Barbados and was fed with feed imported from Trinidad and Tobago, these birds, he said, showed none of the symptoms of the first two batches.

Having conducted testing on three batches, Pierre went further into his analysis. His fourth batch was given feed from ECGC with no salt or supplements added to their diet. He noted that they were given a high concentration of sugar water daily from start to finish, and surprisingly all of the birds seemingly lived a healthy life until they were slaughtered.

The College Lecturer is now suggesting that the information given to the public during the ministry’s press briefing “is nothing less than a joke, used to put a calm to the situation.” He admitted that he is not a pathologist, but is calling on the agriculture officials to revisit the investigative work carried out by Dr. Julian here in St. Vincent.

“I am asking the Ministry to look into this more seriously. If you look at my sensitivity analysis in batch four, the sugar water managed to neutralize whatever substance was causing the high mortality rate in the birds. All I am saying is if the problem is coming from the feed and it can be proven that the feed that ECGC is selling to Barbados and Trinidad does not have the same problem then it is really a mystery, we really have a serious case on our hands,” Pierre pointed out.

The Agricultural Science lecturer indicated that agriculture officials cannot just rely on the statements of the farmers, but they themselves should have been doing an analysis of the situation years ago. “As a matter of fact, I believe this problem was going on since before 2004. My records have shown that we have had this problem possibly a year earlier than the time it was reported,” Pierre said.

The poultry farmer is now calling for a self-governing research unit to be established here where issues like this can be researched independent of both government and the ECGC.

“No one wants to take the blame as we are not yet fully aware of what the problem really is. We need to get to the bottom of this in the shortest possible time because we have farmers now using a sugar mixture to neutralize whatever toxic substance or pathogenic organism that might be present in these birds.

“There is a shortage on the local market right now for birds, and I have even reached as far as to tell my customers to desist from eating these birds. The experiment I did with my fourth batch of birds is showing that it is not fully safe. Whatever pathogenic organism that is present in these birds it is secreting a toxic substance, that’s what the sugar is neutralising. This could never be safe,” Pierre advised.

Chief Veterinary Officer Dr Kathian Hackshaw confirmed that Pierre’s testing to some extent is showing a problem with the meat birds’ feeding pattern.

“What Kelvin is showing from his findings is that there’s a problem with what the birds ingest,” Dr. Hackshaw admitted.

She noted that there are ongoing investigations into the matter and that Dr. Julian’s assessment was just part of the on site analysis.

“Dr. Julian would have taken back some stuff for further testing, and given the fact that there is no infectious problem such as virus or bacteria, we have to work on the cause of the problem.” Dr. Hackshaw stated.

Meanwhile, ECGC’s Market Manager Martin Laborde is agreeing that more investigative work is needed to identify the real reason behind the crisis, but he chided Pierre for not being objective with his findings.

“I think he should have engaged the company or the Ministry of Agriculture during his assessment; the ECGC is conducting further analysis on the feeds and is currently looking at pilot projects to test the birds, similar to what Mr. Pierre has done,” he mentioned.

“We are carrying out the necessary tests as a responsible company to ensure the problem is not with us and until then I am going to defend the company until we have the facts on this,” Laborde said.

The marketing manager mentioned that in the long run if the problem is with the feed, the company would come up with a responsible way of addressing the problem. “We don’t back away from issues like this. We are not going to leave the farmers out. We have to look at a responsible and objective way of dealing with this,” Laborde stated.

While this mystery continues to linger over the poultry industry, farmers, having lost over $80,000 in revenues since 2004, are now hoping that a breakthrough in the findings would restore local production to its peak.