Monday, August 29, 2011
IS BIRD FLU A FOOD SAFETY CONCERN?
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), for which I have worked, has just put out a new alert on "bird flu" - correct name "Avian Influenza" . Remember how scared we were of it years ago? And then, we forgot all about it. Now apparently it is on the rise again, especially in Asia.
When I was writing The Safe Food Handbook, I debated whether to include bird flu in the discussion of risks in meat and poultry. In the end I did - because I became convinced that there could indeed be a resurgence of it and the virus could mutate. But the final section on it is very abbreviated because it is not currently considered a food risk in North America.
True, the most common way you can catch this potentially deadly kind of flu (which has about a 60% mortality rate) is not through eating undercooked chicken or other poultry or eggs. Rather, it is through handling diseased birds (including wild ones) or touching their saliva or droppings. And, even through breathing in contaminated dust. Many of the children who have caught it did so when cleaning out poultry cages - a chore I well remember having to do as a child.
But can you ever get it from food? I became very involved in researching this issue, spending weeks on it, reviewing all the global case studies and research I could find. Yes, there have been a limited number of cases recorded where people did catch it from undercooked poultry or dishes made with poultry blood. However, many more have caught it from preparing the raw poultry.
So, how worried should you be if you don't work on a poultry farm - just eat poultry? In general, I would say "not much" especially if you don't live in countries where it is presently most prevalent - Egypt, Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Cambodia or Vietnam. But with bird migration and the globalization of our food supply, this could change. Occasional cases have indeed occurred elsewhere.
To my knowledge, there has been just one small - and quickly caught - outbreak of this H5N1 virus in the US - on an Idaho pheasant farm (in September 2008).
To your good health,