The recent spread of avian flu in Asia and Europe has rattled consumers and battered poultry producers in those parts of the world. So far, the U.S. poultry industry has been spared -- in part, say industry experts, because differences in U.S. production methods make an outbreak less likely here. But analysts say the multi-billion industry remains vulnerable to further global spread of the disease -– and to public fears that could reduce Americans' appetite for poultry in the coming months.
Poultry farming is big business, and the U.S. is the world’s leading producer and exporter of poultry meat. About 75 percent of that comes from chicken production, the rest from the sales of eggs and turkey. And in recent years, the business has been sizzling: American poultry farmers served up $29 billion worth of birds last year, some 24 percent more than in 2003.
But now, following a flurry of reports of new outbreaks of bird flu outside the U.S., some analysts warn that the U.S. industry could be at risk -- even if the disease doesn't show up here.
“Although consumers have been largely undeterred from beef consumption in the wake of Mad Cow (disease), we believe the prevalence and familiarity with flu in modern society may foster a more tentative public reaction and possibly lead to a reduction in consumption,” Jonathan Feeney, a food and beverage industry analyst at Wachovia Securities, recently warned in a research note to clients.
Public concern about bird flu intensified last week following a report that scientists had linked the deadly Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 – which killed as many as 50 million people -– to a strain of bird flu that mutated and began spreading among humans. That report was followed by a series of recent bird flu outbreaks in Turkey, Romania, Greece after earlier outbreaks in Southeast Asia. Officials in Russia Wednesday confirmed an outbreak. In all, some 16 countries have reported outbreaks, and more than 100 million birds have been killed by the disease or put down after being infected.
Health officials are most concerned about the possible spread of the disease to humans. Last week, on a tour of Southeast Asia countries hit by bird flu, U.S. Health Secretary Mike Leavitt warned that while preparations are increasing, “no nation is adequately prepared for a pandemic flu.” Separately, a senior World Health Organization official said that such a pandemic would result in “hundreds of thousands or even millions of deaths worldwide."
Much of the outlook for U.S. poultry farmers depends on the public’s reaction to statements like those, and to the latest news reports surrounding multiple outbreaks of avian flu. Health officials are walking a fine line between alerting the public to the potential risks of the flu while not panicking the public.
“My mom called me other day and asked me, ‘Should I be worried?’” said Dave Daigle, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. “And I said, ‘No you shouldn’t be worried. What you should do -- because you’re in a high risk group -- is get your flu shot.’ Every year, our flu kills 36,000 Americans -– regular domestic flu.”
The U.S. poultry industry, meanwhile, has stepped up surveillance of the hundreds of millions of chickens and turkeys grown on farms throughout the U.S. Industry experts stress that, unlike the “backyard” production methods used in Asia, where roaming fowl make frequent contact with humans and other migratory birds, U.S. poultry farming isolates its flocks through various layers of “biosecurity” designed to prevent the spread of disease. (Even so-called “free range” chickens do not, in fact, roam free on a range; they’re raised in small, closed pens and not allowed to mingle with migratory birds.)
To check the spread of the disease to the U.S., the Department of Agriculture has banned imports of live birds and eggs from infected countries and is quarantining and testing all imported birds before letting them in the country. Poultry meat from some Asian nations is also required to be processed or cooked under USDA requirements to lower the risk of contamination.
While the threat of a human pandemic is very real, the risk of contracting the disease directly from poultry is mostly limited to contact with live birds. There is no evidence that the disease can be contracted through consumption of well-cooked chicken or eggs.
And though there have been several outbreaks of bird flu in the U.S. since 2004, none have involved the deadly, high-pathogenic H5N1 strain that has been found in Asia and recently began appearing in Europe. (The letters in a flu name refers to the antigens, in this case Hemagglutinin and Neuraminidase, which come in several types. Epidemiologist further classify these viruses as low-pathogenic, which spread slowly, and high-pathogenic, which are much more dangerous.)
The latest outbreak of human H5N1 infection appears to have originated from a Vietnamese man who ate a pudding made from raw duck blood, according to Daigle.
“If you cook the meat thoroughly, then it’s not a problem at all,” he said.
Eggs should also be cooked thoroughly, said Daigle. Other precautions include washing your hands, along with cutting boards and utensils, after handling or cutting raw meat.
Despite concerns about the spread of the disease, American consumers don’t seem to have lost their appetite for poultry. The U.S. industry will get a good indication of public sentiment in a few weeks, when ten of millions of Americans sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, which traditionally takes a big slice out of the 7.5 billion pounds of U.S. turkey produced each year.
But so far, there doesn’t appear to be any drop in chicken consumption in the U.S. beyond the seasonal dip that typically occurs when cold weather in much of the country puts an end to the summer grilling season, according to Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council.
“There is certainly is that potential but we think if people look at the facts, we will not have any problem with people continuing to enjoy chicken," said Lobb.
In Europe, where the disease has hit closer to home, consumer reaction has been more pronounced.
“We’ve noticed a drop in poultry consumption of 10 percent since the beginning of October compared to last year,” a spokeswoman for a poultry wholesalers’ union in France, which is Europe’s largest poultry producer. “We believe that the main reason is bird flu.”
In Italy, a leading farmers’ group, Coldiretti, said chicken consumption has fallen over 30 percent year-on-year in September amid widespread bird flu concern.
But in Germany, a spokesman for the poultry industry association said consumption hasn’t been impacted yet.
“This is what we found from a quick-fire poll. Customers realize the threat is to the animals and not to the product,” said a spokesman. But if the disease struck Germany, he said: “It would have dramatic effects.”
Farmers in the Netherlands are especially vulnerable. After an outbreak of a milder form of the virus in 2003, some 30 million chickens had to be destroyed, wiping out nearly a third of the total stock. The Dutch Agricultural Research Institute estimates the outbreak cost farmer and distributors as much as $600 million.
“The situation in the Netherlands is worse than in other countries,” said Albert Osterhaus, an avian flu expert at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam. "It could be quite explosive because of the huge concentration and numbers of poultry."
The multiple outbreaks of bird flu in Europe could end up boosting orders for U.S. producers, the world leader in poultry exports, which make up some 15 percent of U.S. chicken production and 6 percent of turkey production. Poultry farmers in countries hit by the disease will need to import bird to replace flocks that have been put down and food distributors will need to find alternate sources of poultry.
But Lobb said any potential boost to U.S. exports could be dampened by restrictive tariffs that have already limited the growth of poultry shipments abroad.