Bird flu is a scary business. Each new report of a deadly outbreak brings renewed fears of a looming global pandemic. But the facts suggest the threat, though serious, is manageable—and that the United States, and its poultry industry, can remain disease-free.
Myth: It's just a matter of time before bird flu enters the United States' food supply.
Fact: Though bird flu has become a major concern since deadly outbreaks first spread through Southeast Asia in 2003, strains of avian flu have been in the United States for decades. Scientists have traced the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, which killed 40 million people worldwide, to a form of avian flu. Most recently, thousands of birds were destroyed in Texas in 2004 when viral strains were discovered in commercial poultry flocks.
But the current deadly form of bird flu, called H5N1 HPAI, has not reached the Western hemisphere—and there is reason to be optimistic that even if it did, it would not reach the pandemic proportions feared. In a meeting in Geneva last November, scientists from the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization (a United Nations group) and the World Organisation for Animal Health presented a comprehensive plan to stem the spread of the pathogenic strain by implementing rigorous industry standards in the poultry-producing countries of Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, where the flu has been detected.
While the United States does not import any poultry, North American poultry producers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have adopted an aggressive campaign to prevent H5N1 from spreading if it does make landfall here. In January, the National Chicken Council, which represents commercial farmers, processing plants and distributors, launched a voluntary testing program that will annually screen more than 1.6 million of approximately 50 million commercially produced birds for disease. Even keepers of small backyard flocks have been encouraged to step up their security practices through a nationwide awareness campaign called "Bio-Safety for the Birds," and state health agencies on the East Coast are working to prevent contamination at markets that sell wild birds directly to the public.
Myth: Avian flu is spread through consumption of poultry products.
Fact: Because heat kills microscopic organisms that contain viruses, even a bird infected with avian flu would be safe to eat if properly cooked. According to the WHO, none of the more than 100 cases of human infection have been traced to the ingestion of eggs or chickens carrying H5N1. Though health agencies have urged extra precautions in areas of flu outbreak, experts stress that poultry products should always be handled and prepared carefully to prevent the spread of bacteria.
Myth: Free-range farming is responsible for early outbreaks of bird flu.
Fact: According to the WHO, avian flu is carried by wild migratory waterfowl, which means birds kept outdoors and unprotected are at a higher risk of infection than those kept indoors. Free-roaming "village" birds in Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia are largely responsible for the avian flu's spread outside of Southeast Asia, WHO reports.
But the virus has not been detected in any commercially farmed free-range birds anywhere in the world, thanks to a proactive biosafety campaign. When H5N1 was discovered last fall in Eastern Europe, the governments of France, the Netherlands and Switzerland required free-range farmers to temporarily move their flocks indoors or to outdoor facilities secured by heavy netting to prevent intermingling with diseased migratory visitors. European flocks have since been allowed to return to the outdoors despite the presence of H5N1 on the continent, and free-range farming remains safe. The CFA, a French organization of poultry farmers, is among a handful of European industry groups that claim the heightened restrictions have pinched the profitability of free-range farming.
Myth: Free-range birds in the United States are at risk of contracting avian flu.
Fact: In other media reports, some factory-style farmers have characterized free-range poultry production as a portal that could allow diseased birds to enter North America. But commercial free-range farms—which represent 1 percent of the $29 billion egg and poultry industry—submit to the same testing as their factory counterparts and follow the USDA and National Poultry Improvement Plan guidelines for biosafety, including protecting birds with screens and heavy netting, requiring employees to wear protective suits, sanitizing all equipment and vehicles that come into contact with birds, and limiting exposure to outside sources, including humans. Should H5N1 land in the United States, many free-range farmers would follow the example of their European counterparts by temporarily moving flocks indoors. Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the NCC, points out that commercial free-range farming in the United States is very different from village-style farming in parts of the world where bird flu has spread from bird to bird.
"Free range in this country is not the same as what they find in places where flocks wander around and eat bugs, peck at garbage out there in the wide open, drinking from the same watering hole as water fowl passing through," Lobb says. "We feel very confident that free-range producers are keeping a close eye on things and protecting their birds even more than usual."
Myth: Bird flu has scared consumers away from chicken.
Fact: In addition to their fight to keep bird flu out of the United States, the NCC and the USDA are working to protect Americans from faulty information about bird flu.
"The biggest problem that we have is a matter of perception," says Lobb. "The danger is exaggerated because the bird flu isn't here, and there's currently no reason to think that it's coming here. There's always the potential for the occasional outbreak of a mild avian influenza, but it's not the same thing as the pathogenic form, and we need to be sure that the public understands that."
So far, the public appears to understand the difference: According to the NCC, the American appetite for poultry remains insatiable, with an average of 40 pounds consumed per person every year. That would likely change if the deadly avian flu were to reach the United States, however. According to Advertising Age magazine, demand for poultry dropped 20 percent to 40 percent in parts of Europe and Asia following each outbreak.
Myth: Avian flu is easily transmitted to humans.
Fact: Bird flu is spread through feces, droplets of moisture and other secretions, so only those in close proximity to sick birds are at risk. Of the millions of birds infected with H5N1, about 120 humans have come down with the virus, resulting in just over 80 deaths worldwide, according to the U.N.'s FAO. In all but one known case, the infected people lived and worked in environments where farmed birds intermingled with other birds, both farmed and wild. The rare instances of human-to-human transmission have not spread beyond a small, nuclear group of infected persons. The WHO's primary objective is to prevent H5N1 from mutating into a strain that could easily pass from person to person. If it fails, avian flu could reach pandemic levels.
Among birds, however, the outlook is already grim. For turkeys and chickens infected with H5N1, the mortality rate is 100 percent, according to the World Organisation for Animal Health. Geese and ducks can carry the disease with no outward signs of illness, which is one reason they are viewed as dangerous potential reservoirs of bird flu.
Myth: Avian flu can be easily cured through vitamin supplements.
Fact: "There is no dietary supplement, as far as we know, that prevents or treats avian flu," says Steve Mister, president and chief executive officer of the Council for Responsible Nutrition. "Consumers do have a lot of options to help keep themselves healthy, but they ought to be wary of anything that claims to prevent flu without the data to back it up."
In December 2005, the Food and Drug Administration issued strong warnings to nine companies that marketed their products as capable of treating or preventing bird flu. While industry groups, including CRN, emphasize that supplements can work to boost the immune system as a line of defense against illness and disease, no product has been shown to have any specific preventive power over bird flu.
Health officials also point out that until a known strain of avian flu enters the population, preventive vaccinations and antivirals like Tamiflu are ineffective. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has contracted with several pharmaceutical companies to produce 20 million doses of antiviral medication in case of a bird flu pandemic.
Laura Bond is a Denver-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 3/p. 98-99