New TV, radio ads aim to ease bird flu fears

/ Source: The Associated Press

Hoping to prevent a scare over deadly bird flu, the government is distributing television and radio commercials assuring people that chicken is safe to eat.

“Mmm, that chicken looks great. But what about bird flu?” a man asks in one of ads.

His wife says she read that bird flu is unlikely to reach people’s dinner plates. “And even if it did, we have the power to ensure our chicken is safe,” she says.

An announcer lists four steps for food safety: Clean hands and cooking surfaces. Separate raw and cooked foods. Cook poultry to at least 165 degrees. Chill leftovers promptly.

The Agriculture Department on Thursday began sending out a series of commercials, interview excerpts, video footage and photos to television and radio stations with the goal of easing people’s minds and clearing up misconceptions about bird flu. The ads are public service announcements; stations are not being paid to run them.

Initially, those messages may run up against heavy promotion by ABC of its made-for-television movie, “Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America.” The promos feature how ill-prepared the country is to deal with the problem.

Authorities don’t know how people will react once the deadly virus arrives in the United States.

When bird flu was discovered in France and Italy, consumer demand for chicken plummeted there. It stayed steady when the virus appeared in Britain.

Americans generally are considered to be confident in their food supply, and they eat more chicken than any country in the world. The average person ate 85.8 pounds of chicken last year, a total that should rise to 87.7 pounds in 2006, according to USDA projections.

'It's safe to eat poultry'
While bird flu has spread from Asia throughout Europe and Africa, it hasn’t yet reached the United States.

“But it’s important for you to know that it’s safe to eat poultry, even if bird flu is detected here sometime in the future,” Richard Raymond, the department’s undersecretary for food safety, says in one of the commercials.

“You do have the power to make sure your food is safe,” Raymond adds.

The government is testing wild birds as they arrive this month in Alaska and then fly south along migratory pathways. Chicken and turkey companies have been testing nearly every flock for the virus.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, in another spot, said finding the virus in the U.S. “would not signal the start of a human flu pandemic.”

“The virus is not efficiently spreading from person to person,” Johanns said.

While it does not spread easily among humans, the virus has killed at least 113 people who had close contact with sick birds. The fear is that it might adapt to spread rapidly from person to person, causing a global epidemic.

Ads that focus on that aspect of bird flu are still in the works, said Bill Hall, a Health and Human Services Department spokesman. Like the Agriculture Department spots, the message would be that the arrival of bird flu does not signal a public health emergency, Hall said.

Messages probably would also include information about proper hygiene, such as the need to cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, Hall said.

The National Chicken Council, an industry group, is distributing a 6½ minute video with a message similar to the USDA’s commercials. The video emphasizes security measures designed to keep any virus or bacteria from entering the nation’s poultry farms.

“Our research has shown what you might expect: Everyone knows about avian influenza; but they don’t know all the facts,” said Richard Lobb, the council’s spokesman. “Our industry, and how we produce animals, is not well-understood by the public. And the fact it is so organized and centralized by companies is news to most people.”

The industry is worth about $29 billion annually and is expected to produce 42 billion pounds of chicken and turkey this year.