The numbers of illnesses and fatalities have gone up since my last post on H7N9. H7N9 is the name of the new "bird flu" virus that has turned up in China, crossing the species barrier from poultry to humans. Since the first case on March 31, there are now a reported 28 confirmed illnesses and 8 dead. All are still in eastern China, in, or near Shanghai. No illnesses are yet known to have occurred outside China. That doesn't mean that they won't.
At the present time, we don't yet know how you can catch the virus. It could be animal/bird-to-human, human-to-human, or both. And eating or preparing infected birds (or other animals) may or may not turn out to be dangerous. Some importing countries are becoming nervous about food coming in from China. The World Health Organization also includes food safety in its advice on how to avoid getting this virus (see post after next) - just in case food does turn out to be one route.
In China itself it seems that the virus has indeed turned up in food in the marketplace. Birds have been slaughtered at live poultry markets in Shanghai, and possibly elsewhere, after several tested positive for the virus. Some restaurants and schools have stopped serving poultry. Airlines that route through China have reportedly taken chicken off the menu. And, Chinese consumers are cutting back on the chicken dishes and fast food they eat when dining out (see next post).
Several countries in addition to China itself, are also taking precautionary measures of one kind or another. At least two - Vietnam and Indonesia, have suspended import of poultry products from China.
What about the U.S.? Is the American consumer safe from virus contaminated Chinese poultry? In the U.S., FSIS/USAID is the government agency responsible for keeping meat and poultry products safe. It is also in charge of those processed foods (such as frozen foods like pizzas, stews, casseroles, chicken nuggets, and so on) which contain a significant quantity of meat or poultry. Just to make sure that nothing had changed recently, I rechecked its official site for the list of exporting countries and food products allowed into the U.S.
Yes, USAID still lists China as eligible to export processed - but not raw, poultry products to the U.S.
As we all know by now, processed and frozen foods are not necessarily safe from bacterial and viral contaminants if they have not been properly cooked (case in point: that unusual E.coli 0121 in frozen snacks that I have been blogging about). We also know that in spite of the Chinese government clamping down on food safety regulations in recent years, with very severe penalties handed out (including prison and execution), food safety there leaves much to be desired. USDA inspection visits have reported very unsanitary conditions in several Chinese poultry plants and slaughterhouses. In past years, there have been campaigns by organizations such as Food and Water Watch, to restrict poultry imports into the U.S.
Before you get too scared, let me say first, that there is no evidence at the present time that the virus is present in poultry-containing food coming into the U.S. from China - or, that you can get ill from such food. What I am saying is that it is within the realm of possibility, that at some future time the virus could indeed enter the U.S. food supply through such processed poultry-containing products.
And that's not the end of it. A lot of U.S. pet treats such as pigs' ears and chicken jerky and other pet treats and foods are imported from China. One estimate I found says it amounted to almost 86 million pounds of pet food for 2011. IF this new virus is hiding in such pet treats, it could pose a risk for Americans and particularly for U.S. children, who tend to handle pet treats and not wash their hands afterwards.
So, bottom line - let's watch and see what happens. At the moment, our chicken-containing human and pet food imports from China are assumed to be safe. Let's hope it stays that way.
To your good health,