Alabama health officials have identified 212 workers who have tested positive for tuberculosis at a single poultry plant owned by one of the largest processors in the U.S.

In two batteries of skin tests last month, given to 765 fresh processing employees at the Decatur, Ala., plant owned by Wayne Farms LLC by the State Department of Public Health's Tuberculosis Control Division, 28 percent were found to be infected, including one with active tuberculosis disease, which is contagious. Doctors have yet to evaluate X-rays for 165 current workers who tested positive to determine if any more are contagious.

The testing was prompted by an earlier active TB case - a former Wayne Farms worker.

Both employees with active TB are Hispanics born in countries where the disease is prevalent, heath officials said.

When the disease is latent, those with TB are not contagious, but the TB bacteria remains in the body for life unless it is treated. Once it becomes active it may cause permanent damage to the lungs and other organs and the airborne bacteria is easily spread by coughing, laughing or even talking. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 50 percent of those who have close contact with someone with active TB for 15 minutes will become infected.

Accompanied by the rise in illegal immigration, tuberculosis is making a comeback in the U.S., often eluding diagnosis by doctors who are unfamiliar with the disease.

Last year, WND reported more than three-quarters of the 2,903 cases in California in 2005 were among foreign natives, with a total of 14,093 cases nationwide.

Scott Jones, interim director of the Tuberculosis Control Division told the Decatur Daily he was not surprised at the large number of employees who tested positive.

"The majority of the folks that we're dealing with in this situation are foreign born," Jones said. "I would expect about 30 percent of them to test positive."

Of particular concern to public health officials are emerging strains of drug-resistant TB brought to the U.S. by illegal aliens who bypass the screening regularly done with legal immigrants.

The drug-resistant TB recently killed more than 50 people in South Africa. It has been found in limited numbers in the U.S. - 74 reported cases since 1993. The strain is nearly impossible to cure because it is immune to the best first- and second-line TB drugs. It is as easily transmitted through the air as the old TB.

There is another form of TB concerning U.S. health officials. It is called "multi-drug resistant." It responds to more treatments but can cost up to $250,000 and take two years to cure. This is the strain increasingly common throughout the world - rising more than 50 percent from about 273,000 in 2000 to 425,000 in 2004, according to a study published in August in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

In the U.S., 128 people were found to have it in 2004, a 13 percent increase from the previous year.

Stan Hayman, sales and marketing director for Wayne Farms, told the Decatur Daily the company had offered to reimburse the state for the measures taken at the plant.

Jones, who noted his office has only two X-ray technicians in the Division of TB Control to cover the entire state, said the offer was appreciated, but "if Wayne Farms is interested in investing something, my recommendation to them would be to invest within their own facility to establish a pre-employment screening routine.

"If their intent is to invest, I wish they'd think about ways they can invest toward the future as opposed to reimbursing for a one-time event."

Hayman earlier told Huntsville's WHNT-TV News the company was looking for ways to pre-test employees before they're hired but said the law imposed limits on what could be done.

"The laws today don't truly allow for pre-employment screening. You know HIV and all of these over the years have built cases where personal information is very guarded," he said. "So we struggle a little bit with the laws today to say can we truly implement a pre-screening, pre-employment process."

Hayman also said, despite the large number of foreign-born Hispanic employees working at the Decatur facility, all have been verified as legally working in the U.S.

"When we offer application of employment to an individual we use what's called the pilot program," Hayman told WHNT-TV.

The pilot program checks Social Security numbers. Wayne Farms requires job applicants to fill out an I-9 form confirming their identity and right to work in the U.S. and to provide their Social Security number.

"The system will give you a go, no-go at that point when you put that information into it," said Hayman. "So we don't allow those people that come back with non compliant to ever start work for us without contesting it or giving us additional information on really who they are."

The two Hispanic workers with active TB went through the same Wayne Farms hiring process.

"They all went through that process. They all came back verified the information came back compliant. It was in the system. So they all went through the exact process we are talking about," said Hayman.

According to the company website, "Wayne Farms LLC is one of the top six fully integrated poultry processors in the United States. With a focus on quality every step of the way, 'from farm to fork,' more than 250 million chickens or 1.8 billion pounds of poultry are processed annually in our 13 facilities."

Humans cannot become infected with TB bacteria from chickens, and it cannot be transmitted through chicken meat.