UPDATE 2-U.S. exports at risk as bird flu hits heart of poultry country
(Updates with comments from JBS chief)
By Tom Polansek and P.J. Huffstutter
CHICAGO, March 12 (Reuters) - Mexico, the biggest buyer of U.S. chicken, and other major countries imposed new import restrictions on Thursday after a virulent form of bird flu was found at the heart of America's poultry region.
The virus' discovery in Arkansas is expected to prompt similar moves by up to 40 more countries, and the restrictions are likely to depress prices and hurt U.S. poultry producers, economists said.
Top U.S. poultry producers like JBS SA unit Pilgrim's Pride Corp and Sanderson Farms Inc downplayed the risk to operations, but the Arkansas case sent their shares tumbling on Wednesday ahead of an official confirmation.
"We will see some markets shutting their imports, mainly from that state, but not from the whole country," said Wesley Batista, chief executive officer of meats company JBS SA .
Fearing the virus' spread, Mexico, Canada and the European Union, along with other importers, on Thursday banned poultry imports from Arkansas. Missouri, Minnesota, California, Washington state and Oregon already face bans or restrictions.
China and South Korea have total bans on U.S. poultry exports from prior avian flu cases.
After recent cases in a handful of other states, the U.S. government on Wednesday confirmed the infection of highly pathogenic H5N2 avian flu in turkeys in Arkansas, home to Tyson Foods Inc, the world's biggest chicken company. The virus is unlikely to kill enough U.S. birds to offset the drop in overseas demand due to trade bans. Continuación...