Poultry eaters are not chickening out yet

Fast-food outlets, grocers in area see no flu impact

February 12, 2004|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

Sick chickens in Delaware don't appear to be curbing people's appetite for poultry just yet.

The line at Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits on York Road in Baltimore's Govans neighborhood was all the way to the door yesterday during lunch, despite reports that avian influenza had sickened a second flock of chickens in Delaware. A few blocks north at a Boston Market, just about every table was filled with people eating roasted chicken.

Days after an outbreak of avian flu shut the Delaware chicken industry and prompted 11 countries, mostly in Asia, to ban imports of U.S. poultry, there doesn't appear to be a marked downturn in consumer demand for chicken.

But chicken growers and sellers are watching closely, having seen the havoc that mad cow disease caused to the beef industry in the United States and abroad.

"We haven't seen a difference, really," said Jerry Gordon, owner of Eddie's Supermarket in Charles Village. Wholesale chicken prices have risen slightly during the past week, but not enough to pass on the cost to customers, he said.

Travis Kaim, a 20-year-old business and economics major at the Johns Hopkins University, bought two packages of chicken breasts from Eddie's that he'll prepare for dinners over the next four days.

"I'm a realist, and I mostly trust the FDA, so I'll eat it," Kaim said, referring to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "I think it's very, very unlikely that I'll get sick."

Safeway, the California-based supermarket chain that operates 76 stores in Maryland, has received no questions from customers about the avian flu and none of its chicken distributors has been affected, said Greg TenEyck, director of public affairs for Safeway's eastern division.

Food analyst Harry Balzer said it's hard to gauge what will cause a public outcry. People immediately became concerned when mad cow disease erupted in Europe and thousands of cows were slaughtered. The influenza isn't a threat to humans so it might seem more benign, said Balzer, a vice president at Chicago-based NPD Group, which tracks consumer eating habits.

"I imagine right now people are watching," Balzer said. "If we find out it was an issue that affects humans, there might be more concern."

With various food scares over time, from mercury in fish to pesticides on vegetables, some consumers might be becoming desensitized to health concerns in food, some said.

"All the food in the United States is bad for you," said Robert Jones, a social worker from Randallstown, as he ordered a chicken lunch from Popeyes. "I say my grace before I eat and pray that God will protect me from all the junk that I eat."

Others aren't taking any risks.

Patrick Warner stopped eating beef during the mad cow epidemic. Now, he'll forgo chicken, even though he knows that avian influenza doesn't kill humans. Warner, who lives in Baltimore and is publisher of Amici23 sports magazine, said he doesn't want to take the risk.

"I'll stick to eating fish and vegetables," he said.

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