March 12, 2006 -- She's not a farmer or a chef, but Donna Garren says she's now often referred to as the "Chicken Lady."
That's because much of her time is devoted to keeping restaurant owners up to date on the bird flu.
"It's something we need to spend and concentrate a good deal of our time on, to make sure as an industry that we're prepared," said Garren, vice president for health and safety regulatory affairs with the National Restaurant Association.
Because cases of bird flu have been detected in Asia, Europe and Africa, her priority has turned from other concerns to educating her 60,000 member restaurants about the virus and its implications for the food services industry, which could potentially be dealing with issues both with its supply chain and customers.
While the avian flu has only been known to spread from a live animal to a human, meaning you cannot catch the H5N1 virus from cooked chicken, that fact may not make people feel any more enthusiastic about ordering a grilled chicken dish if bird flu is found in the United States.
To prevent that type of confusion, Garren is involved in a public information campaign to make sure restaurant owners are prepared to deal with questions from diners. While educating them about how bird flu is spread, she also wants restaurateurs to start planning on their end by checking in with their suppliers.
"Reassure yourself as a company that your suppliers have the ability to control this. … And have alternative suppliers if that supplier you get is quarantined by the USDA," she said.
The National Restaurant Association has also been doing scenario planning with major restaurant companies like Darden Associates, which owns Red Lobster. While it has not conducted actual drills, she said, it is assessing how businesses will respond in the event of a crisis.
New Daily Specials: Omit Chicken?
Amid the new product launches, seminars and culinary competitions at an industry trade show in Wisconsin this week will be information on the less-appetizing subject of the bird flu.
"In our booth, we are promoting heavily our hotline and team, and the fact they are resources about this," said Susan Quam of the Wisconsin Restaurant Associates Education Foundation.
The foundation also will offer guidelines to those in the food services industry who may be concerned about handling poultry. "We encourage them to purchase their product from an approved source and handle them in the proper manner. … And those are the things they should continue to do," Quam said.
But that may not make consumers feel any better.
"We also know that consumers will be concerned even if it's in just the wild bird," said Garren, who realizes part of her job is to "make sure that customers are comfortable."
She realizes that restaurants may need to be flexible to achieve that comfort for customers. That was the case in Asia and Europe, where she said cases of avian flu led to the creation of new menu items and alternative protein choices.
"Understanding that, yes, there may be some consumers that want some alternative to poultry products," said Garren of the National Restaurant Association. "We understand that, and we are a service industry."