There was more evidence this week that the economic recovery will not be a steady climb to better times.
The government reports that a steep decline in new car sales dropped the nation's retail sales rate in January. New jobless claims increased last week, indicating the job market remains soft. And the U.S. trade deficit shot to a record $489 billion in 2003. That's a 17 percent increase over the old record.
The weak economic reports muted rallies at most financial markets this week, while commodity markets tried to digest bad news of a different sort.
As the beef industry has done for the past eight weeks, the U.S. poultry industry now faces a major threat to its livelihood from a devastating disease.
Delaware's first case was found at an independent farm that produced live birds for the New York and New Jersey markets. The second case was discovered about fives miles away in a commercial broiler operation.
Thursday, health officials reported finding a strain of bird flu at four live chicken markets in northern New Jersey. While the strain is the same one found at the two farms in Delaware, officials say it is not related to the variety of avian influenza that is blamed for 19 deaths in Vietnam and Thailand. The Asian bird flu also forced the slaughter of an estimated 50 million birds as authorities in the stricken countries work to stop the spread of the contagious disease.
The U.S. bird flu cases have led seven nations, including some of America's largest poultry customers, to ban imports from the United States. Even before the second case was reported, China joined Poland, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong in banning U.S. poultry imports. Russia, America's largest overseas poultry market, has banned imports from Delaware only.
Exports account for about 20 percent of the business for the U.S. poultry industry, with annual exports totaling more than 1.7 billion dollars. About 1.4 billion dollars of that amount is in shipments of broiler chicken. Countries like China and Japan that have banned U.S. imports, received at least 245 million dollars in U.S. broiler chicken in the past 11 months alone, according to an Agriculture Department economist.
U.S. officials say if the avian influenza does not spread farther, the impact of the bans could be short-lived. But, they say they must convince the world that they have the disease under control.