The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Avian Flu

Avian Flu


April 30, 2007

Living in a global garden has its rewards. Thanks to international trade, Americans have access to anything from tropical oils to Barossa Valley wines. The trade off, however, is potential exposure to international illnesses. In recent months, the risk of contracting Avian Flu has triggered the most concern from consumers, due, in part, to gross misconceptions about how the virus works and what (or who) it affects.

Just like people, birds can have the flu (influenza). Identified over 100 years ago during an Italian outbreak, the disease has since spread to different parts of the world. If left untreated in domesticated birds like chickens, turkeys and ducks, Avian Flu can swiftly devastate an entire flock. The strain to blame for the most recent outbreak in Asia and Europe, known to scientists as HPAI (the United States does not currently have this form), is highly virulent and extremely deadly to poultry. When an outbreak is discovered, infected poultry are immediately destroyed to prevent infection in healthy birds.

While sales of poultry temporarily go down during reports of an Avian Flu outbreak, consumer risk of contracting the disease is actually extremely rare - since the virus is found only in bird droppings, nasal secretions and saliva of infected birds. Bird-to-human transmission of the flu occurs most commonly through the inhalation of contaminated feces (as in the case of poultry workers, and usually in unsanitary conditions), and not from eating a cooked bird.

Since human-to-human transmission is possible in theory, the USDA and other health organizations are working through worldwide surveillance to decrease potential threats of pandemic outbreak, and increase detection and eradication efforts. But if an outbreak were to occur that exposed humans, supermarkets would need to put in place an emergency plan that would allow for risk-minimizing activities like curbside pickup. Also, temporary disruptions in shipments of stock should be expected in this scenario, especially if health officials quarantine the infected poultry.

Douglas Archer, Associate Dean for Research at the Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences at the University of Florida, recommends "communicating the store's emergency plan for getting food to people if an epidemic or pandemic occurs," and educating consumers about healthy cooking habits.

USDA, CDC and FDA recommendations for proper handling and preparation of poultry products: