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Bird Flu Not Seen as Hazard to Human Health; Not until 'Species Jump' - Say Other Experts

NEW YORK - While the National Chicken Council says the recent outbreaks of avian influenza or bird flu do not pose a hazard to the food supply and even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not alarmed by it, other sources contacted by ID Access warned that it could mutate into a dangerous pathogen.

Grover Niemeier, foodservice management professional and a member of the ID Access Editorial Advisory Board, Chicago, cautioned that the virus that currently infects chickens can mutate or "jump species" and become dangerous if consumed by humans. Niemeier believes that it is a matter of time for a flu virus that thus far is not known to be transmitted to humans to incubate in a vulnerable person with a low-resistance immune system and morph into another pathogen. And then, he said, "The rest is history."

Richard L. Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, Washington, DC, said the disease has not impacted the domestic market and "there just doesn't seem to be any human health hazard," he said. Citing the Atlanta-based CDC, Lobb added that "nobody has gotten avian influenza by eating infected chicken. This is respiratory disease of live birds."

Infected Flocks Do not Reach Market
Lobb also explained that live chickens with avian influenza, when cooked to the proper temperature, will not be hazardous to human health. "No infected chickens are getting into the marketplace that we know. Every flock from the Delaware, Maryland and Virginia area, where this is centered, is tested before it goes to slaughter. If it is found positive, it would be destroyed and would not go to market. Infected birds are destroyed on the farm and never enter the food chain."

Eric Joiner, president of AJC Food and a member of the board of directors of Frosty Acres Brands, Atlanta, concurs that there is little danger to humans from bird flu. However, he cautioned, "The big fear here is that if a person with an existing human virus came in touch with avian influenza virus, it could mutate into a new deadly human virus. "This has happened some time in the past and is not much different than what apparently happened with SARS," he said.

Joiner further noted that like Mad Cow, bird flu has little direct effect in the domestic market unless it is not treated. It does affect America's poultry export business. On the other hand, he continued, unlike BSE, bird flu "can spread and be a major issue to human health if not properly handled. There is no doubt that the USDA and the industry is doing all possible to avoid that."

Phil Kaladin, a sales rep with U.S. Foodservice in Florida and ID DSR of the Year in April 2002, said the influenza has not affected its chicken stocks. "The USDA is inspecting all chicken purchase by major companies thus ensuring that the public will be safe," he said.

The CDC states there is no evidence that any human cases of avian influenza have been acquired by eating poultry products. Influenza viruses such as H5N2, H7N2, and H5N1 are destroyed by adequate heat, as are other foodborne pathogens, it pointed out.

The CDC advised using common food-safety procedures in dealing with raw poultry: Cook all poultry and poultry products (including eggs) thoroughly before eating. This means that chicken should be cooked until it reaches a temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit, throughout each piece of chicken. Raw poultry always should be handled hygienically because it can be associated with many infections, including salmonella. Therefore, all utensils and surfaces (including hands) that come in contact with raw poultry should be cleaned carefully with water and soap immediately afterwards.

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