By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia
University of Georgia food microbiologist Mike Doyle says "the likelihood is pretty low" that the harmful strain of avian influenza will enter the United States food supply.
"There are two types of avian flu H5NI viruses: a highly pathogenic virus and a low-pathogenic virus," said Doyle, director of the UGA Center for Food Safety in Griffin, Ga. "The low-pathogenic virus has been around for more than a decade. The high-pathogenic virus is the one linked to the deaths in Asia."
Doyle says the cases in Asia have been tied to people who live near or handle live poultry.
"The difference is that the United States has fire walls in place to prevent such a virus from entering our food supply," Doyle said. "If infected birds were found in this country, they would be quickly detected, quarantined and destroyed."
The virus is known to be spread by coughing and inhaling, Doyle said. "It can also be spread if you touch something that has the virus on it and then rub your eye," he said. "There's no clear evidence that it's transmitted by the oral route."
Cook poultry thoroughly
Doyle says if an infected bird were to enter the U.S. food supply, consumers can protect themselves by always thoroughly cooking poultry products and washing their hands after touching fresh poultry meat.
"If it enters the food supply through poultry meat or eggs," he said, "research shows that cooking to 160 (degrees Fahrenheit) will inactivate the virus."
Georgia, which produces more poultry than any other U.S. state, tests every flock for avian influenza, said Mike Lacy, head of the UGA poultry science department. So far, the state's 1.4 billion chickens are avian-flu-free.
"Low-pathogenic avian flu is much like regular human flu," Lacy said. "The chickens stop eating, decrease activity and have respiratory symptoms like sneezing and coughing."
Poultry industry safe-guard
To be on the safe side, chicken flocks in the U.S. are slaughtered even if the low-pathogenic strain of the virus is found, Lacy said, because of the remote chance that these flu viruses can evolve into the highly pathogenic strain.
A world-renowned expert in foodborne pathogens, Doyle compares the issue to that of mad cow disease.
"Mad cow is a minor issue in this country," he said. "We haven't had anyone get sick from acquiring it in this country. Contracting it is a rare event and, again, we have fire walls in place in the U.S. to prevent infected beef from entering the food supply."
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)