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Preparing for Bird Flu is Good Business



The World Bank, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Association (FAO) estimate that bird flu could claim 70 million lives – roughly one quarter of the population of the United States or 1% of the world's inhabitants.

{mosimage}In terms of its impact on the global economy, experts, who aren't yet sure how long the virulent disease will last from start to finish, predict that such a worldwide pandemic will cost $1.25 trillion, up from $800 billion a few months ago.

It took New York City and the rest of the country more than a year to recover from the drastic economic effects of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Canada also endured for many months the consequences of SARS. It is difficult to estimate how long it will take all of the countries of the world to rise above the undeniably greater impact of this impending global cataclysm.

"Crossing your fingers is not a sound business strategy."
By now, bird flu has caused the death or destruction of 200 million foul. Fortunately, only about 135 human lives have been lost in less than three years. The highly pathogenic virus, H5N1, has spread westward from Asia, infesting poultry in virtually each country in its path. Scientists believe migrating wild birds pass the disease to domestic flocks.

Of the more than three dozen countries to have reported confirmed occurrences of the deadly variety of bird flu, Spain is the latest. You may remember from geography classes that Spain lies on the Atlantic Ocean and across that body of water are the United States and Canada. It is not unheard of for migrating wild birds to cross the open ocean in both directions without trouble.

Consequently, experts are in agreement that H5N1-infected fowl will undoubtedly make their way to North America though they offer different estimated times of arrival and points of entry.

Thus far, bird flu primarily kills poultry. Humans, who have been in close proximity to birds that are infected with the highly pathogenic strain of the virus, have contracted the disease and some have died.

GLOBAL BUT NOT YET PANDEMIC The World Bank, for one, has declared bird flu to be global in scope. What has kept the disease from becoming a pandemic is the virus' thus far inability to pass from one human to another. We can catch it from sick birds but we can't pass it to our neighbors like the common cold. Scientists have been leery to declare the few instances of so-called cluster dissemination of the virus among family members in Indonesia to be the dreaded mutation. However, in the world of science and nature, they point out, everything is possible.

Is this comparable to the rogue city-block size asteroid hurtling toward Earth? No, but the situation is dangerous enough to warrant international agencies, national governments, doctors and health professionals, businesses and industries, and common folk to stay abreast of the virus' development and protect themselves sufficiently to limit its devastation. That's why we've been covering this story for three years and more intensely for the past seven months.

As microcosms of society, companies of all sorts should begin addressing this issue as they would any conceivable business situation. Internal groups, committees or taskforces should be created consisting of executives, managers and workers from every department and shift. They should be mandated to research bird flu and, by creating extreme-case and minimal-case scenarios, determine how the company will continue to provide its goods and services to the marketplace for the indispensable survival of itself and society.

The International Foodservice Distributors Association, Falls Church, VA, is right on the mark for having convened last month such a discussion among foodservice distributors. (Click for story.)

Inasmuch as the disease affects poultry, which is a protein mainstay on operators' menus, the food industry and foodservice distributors should be proactively in the forefront of this issue regardless of the government's actions. Though not for the reason that might have just flashed in your minds.

When the pandemic hits, you will not be marketing potentially deadly food products to consumers. Experts concur that normal cooking temperatures kill the virus, which also does not inhabit eggs. Consequently, if you're trying to reassure yourself, as some have told us, that you're prepared for bird flu because you're HACCP certified, then you're deluding yourself.

The seven principles of Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points deal with foodborne pathogens and food safety, the accidental or deliberate contamination of food, recording the occurence, and then recovering from it. It does not take into account the possibility of distributing inventoried meat from sickened poultry.

DISTRIBUTORS WILL DEAL WITH NEW WORLD Foodservice distributors will have to deal with creating a work environment that will be able to sustain and satisfy the "new" eating habits of understandably panicky consumers. Statistics show that at least in Europe, they have slowed down their consumption of poultry while in the United States consumers have revealed in surveys that they are under false impressions that eating bird flu contaminated poultry products is detrimental to your health.

Consider this: After the deadly virus mutates and is transmitted to us, we, humans, will be able to pass the disease to someone else, thereby possibly fatally infecting our neighbors or be similarly infected by our neighbors at work, a restaurant, or wherever we co-exist in close quarters.

Will we want to mingle with people? Will we want to go to work? Will we want to go to a restaurant? Experts say that a 3-ft. exclusion zone will be necessary to keep the highly pathogenic strain of the virus from being transmitted among humans. At the same time, society, businesses and people must continue to exist, function, work and eat.

Foodservice distributors have to start anticipating new logistics, supply chain metrics, marketing parameters and business paradigms. They should plan for, among other issues:

  • Allowing some employees to work at home where feasible;

  • Operating round the clock with more shifts but fewer people per shift thereby reducing the likelihood of human contact while keeping up with new levels of demand;

  • Marketing in a foodservice environment that could be unwarrantedly abstinent or fidgety about poultry consumption and at the same time predominantly focused on takeout or home meal replacement food.

  • Working with poultry suppliers and health officials in educating the populace about poultry food products.

    It will be a different world after the pandemic strikes and recedes. God willing our preparations will turn out to be merely dress rehearsals for something that will never happen. However, crossing your fingers is not a sound business strategy.

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