Playing Chicken: Is Eating Poultry Safe?

With growing alarm over the threat of a possible bird-flu pandemic, the fast-food industry has gone on the offensive to make sure consumers don't become too chicken to eat their chicken.

Kentucky Fried Chicken has reportedly prepared an ad campaign emphasizing that consumers are safe when eating properly handled and prepared chicken, according to a report published late last year in Advertising Age.

Yum! Brands, the parent company of KFC, estimates that sales could fall as much as 20 percent in the United States if a bird-flu scare should occur. In some parts of Europe and Asia, demand for chicken has already dropped significantly, according to the article.

The pre-panic preparations point to an important question: Are U.S. consumers at risk if they prepare and eat chicken?

Chicken: 'Little to Fear'

"It's perfectly safe," said Richard Lobb, communications director for the National Chicken Council.

"We understand the concerns that some people have, but the simple fact is we don't have any problem with the H5N1 form [of the disease] here in the U.S.," Lobb said, referring to the medical name for the particular form of bird flu that has swept across Asia.

Yum! Brands said in a statement that the ad campaign is part of an overall preparedness plan. "We, like others, are watching this closely and have been developing contingency plans that we hope we won't have to use," the company said.

The form of the disease of greatest concern, the H5N1 strain, is found mostly in wild and domestic birds in Asia. People who have developed bird flu usually had direct contact with the sick birds or their droppings. Experts fear, however, that if the virus mutates it could possibly kill millions of people around the globe.

The poultry industry has long been aware of the costs of avian flu and other diseases to which turkeys, ducks and chicken are susceptible. Companies have adopted measures that protect valuable flocks from those diseases.

"What companies are doing is emphasizing the issue of biosecurity to their growers," Lobb said. Biosecurity measures include monitoring flocks for signs of illness and preventing contact between poultry and wild birds, which often spread disease.

Potential Losses Over $100 Million

The economic losses from any potential outbreak have varied widely and could touch a wide swath of businesses, ranging from farmers who raise chickens to processors like Tyson and Perdue to grocery stores, food service vendors and restaurants like KFC that sell chicken products to consumers.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 15 percent and 35 percent of the U.S. population could become sick from a pandemic flu. The economic impact could range between $71 billion and $167 billion. That's seven times to 15 times higher than the economic losses from the typical flu season.

The Chicken Council estimated that wholesale chicken sales totaled $36 billion in the United States in 2005. But Lobb said the industry has not estimated any potential downturn in sales, as it remains difficult to predict when or if an outbreak might occur, much less how it will affect consumption and commerce.

"You could pick any estimate number you want and slap it on there and it would be just as valid as anything else. There's no way to really predict the economic impact," he said. "You have to be an optimist to be in business, so they're just going to keep on running birds."

Lobb said that unlike restaurant vendors like Yum! Brands, the Chicken Council has not prepared a public campaign to stress food-safety issues. But he allowed that it may consider it should an outbreak occur.

"Right now, the production numbers have stayed steady. We understand that this happy state of mind might not last forever, but we don't have a commercial ad campaign in our back pocket," he said."

"Anything that might cause an economic downturn is obviously of the highest priority, and I'd say this is the No. 1 issue facing the industry right now."

Keeping the Chickens Safe From Theoretical Risk

Lobb estimates that more than 99 percent of U.S. poultry farms keep flocks in enclosed shelters, unlike flocks in Asian countries, where there is frequent contact between wild and domesticated birds.

And, according to a statement from Tyson Foods, a major poultry manufacturer, the company uses procedures like "all-in, all-out" farming, which require moving same-age birds in and out of production facilities as one group or flock. Tyson also requires that visitors to poultry farms wear protective clothing to prevent the spread of disease.

But according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, people could become infected with some form of the avian flu by eating undercooked, diseased poultry or poultry products like eggs.

So what, if anything, can consumers do to protect themselves from the avian flu?

"There's nothing more that consumers should be doing that they aren't doing already," said Lobb. There are no special safety precautions or cooking procedures other than those currently recommended to prevent contagion from salmonella or other pathogens.

Protective measures include refrigerating foods promptly, washing hands and food preparation surfaces carefully, keeping potentially contaminated surfaces and utensils separate from uncooked foods like raw vegetables, and cooking foods completely at the proper temperature.

And consumers seem to understand that the current risk from avian flu is low. In cases where companies have set up information hot lines for the public, "there are very, very few calls," said Lobb.

"The health of the flock," Lobb reminds consumers, "is probably the best that it's ever been."