Poultry producers, company representatives and state and national officials all gathered Wednesday to celebrate the industry with the 75th meeting of the Georgia Poultry Improvement Association.
The meeting coincides with this year's plans to begin construction on a new Georgia Poultry Laboratory in Hall County.
"The poultry lab at Oakwood has now outlived its originally projected 50-year lifespan," Gov. Nathan Deal told association members and guests. "The facility was designed in 1959 and things have certainly changed since 1959."
Much of the old building has been condemned, and Georgia Poultry Laboratory Network employees are ready to get started on a new facility that better reflects the modern poultry industry.
"It's going to be slightly larger and it's designed with the flow of samples in mind to avoid cross-contamination," said Louise Dufour-Zavala, executive director of the network.
The new lab was also designed with visitors in mind.
Dufour-Zavala said the $11.2 million facility would have viewing mezzanines and platforms for people to watch testing going on, instead of employees having to worry about visitors actually being in the testing areas.
The lab network is the first responder if avian influenza or Exotic Newcastle reaches the United States, Dufour-Zavala said.
"We export close to 20 percent of the chickens produced in Georgia. The lab does a lot of the export certification," said Mike Giles, president of the Gainesville-based Georgia Poultry Federation.
"That certifies they're from a healthy farm and that there are no diseases present."
Companies use the labs, which are scattered throughout the state, for a lot of different services. If a flock becomes sick or shows any symptoms, they can bring samples into the lab for diagnostic work, Giles said.
"We need a lab that's going to be able to handle the expanded volume, the even more complex diagnostic requirements, and we need a lab that will also continue to be a vital part of our biosecurity," Deal said. "What we need in the poultry industry is a lab that will try to make sure that we don't have any consequences such as (the salmonella outbreak in Blakely); one that will address the needs of your industry, keeping you on the cutting edge of the future."
With Georgia producing 1.4 billion chickens every year, valued at about $3.7 billion, the poultry industry needs to continue adapting with technology, and disease and regulatory changes, poultry leaders said.
It's a mission the association and lab network have been dedicated to for the past 75 years.
The association unofficially began in the 1930s, when a disease called pullorum threatened to devastate the poultry industry.
"It was a germ that passed from the hen to the baby chick," Dufour-Zavala said. "It was not conducive to a healthy poultry industry."
In 1924, a group of concerned scientists and poultry producers got together and formed the Baby Chick Association. The association's goal was to track and eradicate pullorum from Georgia, Dufour-Zavala said.
Things began to look up in 1935, when the National Poultry Improvement Plan was put into place. The plan, like with the Baby Chick Association, was to have pullorum gone from the industry, and in doing so required intensive testing and elimination of infected birds.
"Georgia got right on board," Dufour-Zavala said. "Georgia Poultry Laboratory Network had its first meeting in 1936. ... Pullorum was devastating. That's why they got serious real fast."
The first Georgia Poultry Laboratory was built in 1956 in a small building on Main Street in Gainesville, said Abit Massey, president emeritus of the Gainesville-based Georgia Poultry Federation.
The farm value of poultry had risen from $230,000 to $221 million, he said.
"When the lab began, really the industry had not evolved into what it is today," said Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation. "The lab has really grown up with the industry and responded to the demand."
The Baby Chick Association became the Georgia Poultry Improvement Association in 1946 and established itself as the official state association of the National Poultry Improvement Plan.
As the 1950s and 1960s wore on, other diseases such as salmonella and avian influenza were incorporated in the plan. The laboratory network in Georgia grew to meet the demand for a newly vertically integrated industry.
Massey described the process as wrapping all of the poultry businesses into one package, which allowed for better quality control and more opportunity for growth.
Giles said originally in the industry, chicks, feed, breeders and other portions were each their own company. Gainesville's Jesse Jewell was instrumental in the vertical integration.
"It enabled adequate supply and a quality product," Massey said. "It increased the variety of products. It used to be your grandmother could go get a whole chicken and that was it. Now you can choose from about 3,000 products."