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2008/04/16 16:58 KST
(LEAD) S. Korea extends bird flu risk level to second highest nationwide

   SEOUL, April 16 (Yonhap) -- South Korea has extended its avian influenza risk level to the second highest nationwide amid rising concerns bird flu could spread across the country following a series of outbreaks this month, quarantine officials said Wednesday.

   The Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries held a livestock quarantine meeting earlier in the day and decided to extend the risk level to "orange" nationwide.

   This is the second highest risk level in South Korea's four-tier alert system -- blue, yellow, orange and red -- and it has been applied previously only to the Jeolla provinces where most cases of avian influenza have been reported.

   The ministry also said that it will begin conducting year-round blood serum testing at all poultry farms with the help of local universities, to detect any signs of infection early on and then take swift remedial action. At present close monitoring and testing are conducted only from November through February.

   Officials added that moves are underway to mete out tougher penalties to those who break quarantine rules, following suspicions that several farmers sold poultry distributors sick birds this year.

   The series of moves come as the government is intensifying its quarantine efforts to stem the further spread of bird flu after a outbreak was confirmed in Pyeongtaek, around 70 kilometers away from Seoul on Tuesday. The Pyeongtaek case is raising concerns that bird flu might be fast spreading nationwide.

   As of Tuesday, the number of suspected or confirmed bird flu cases stood at 36, of which 20 were proven to have been linked to the highly pathogenic virus, according to the ministry.

   Following an outbreak in the winter of 2003, authorities culled around 5.6 million birds, while similar outbreaks in 2006 saw about 2.8 million birds destroyed.

   The National Agricultural Cooperative Federation (Nonghyup) and local poultry market associations stressed however that consumers face no serious threat to health as a result of poultry consumption.

   Nonghyup said the avian virus is easily killed if exposed to heat in excess of 75 degrees celsius for more than five minutes. It said if a person falls ill as a result of eating chicken or duck sold through the regular distribution chain, he or she could receive insurance payments of up to 2 billion won (US$2.02 million).

   Demand for both chicken and duck meat has been falling as a result of the outbreak, with some discount outlets reporting a 14 percent drop in sales.

   yonngong@yna.co.kr
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