Chicken fever

February 15, 2004

U.S. CONSUMERS are no birdbrains. Or, more precisely, they can tell the difference between a serious risk to human health and a disease that kills livestock. And, as a certain stock-trading criminal defendant/TV personality might say, that's a good thing.

Witness the lack of panic over poultry. Nobody in the U.S. seems to be chickening out about eating chicken despite the recent news concerning avian influenza. Perhaps that's because people are paying attention -- or at least avoiding misinformation.

At least 19 people have died so far this year from an outbreak of avian flu in Vietnam and Thailand. While that's a relatively small number, the H5N1 strain of avian flu is a legitimate world health threat. Public health officials worry that the flu has the potential to be far worse -- if it adapts to a form that can be transmitted from person to person.

Then, a little more than a week ago, a different strain of avian flu, H7, was discovered in Delaware. The strain is not as lethal as the Asian form of H5, nor has it shown an ability to infect humans. The flu is not considered a threat to the food supply. Yet when H7 is discovered, it's a serious event. Poultry farms have to be isolated. Visitors are restricted. The Delmarva's multibillion- dollar poultry industry is at risk. The best way to head off an outbreak is to keep it from spreading. Often, whole flocks are deliberately destroyed when an infection is discovered.

Watching the evening news on television this past week and witnessing images of farms posted off-limits, live poultry markets shuttered and thousands of chickens destroyed, all of it coming so quickly on the heels of the Asian outbreak, consumers could be forgiven if they got antsy. But they didn't run screaming out of the local KFC. They acted like grown-ups.

It's been a tough year for carnivores. Between mad cow disease and the concerns about PCBs in salmon, consumers understood that the last thing they needed was to act like a bunch of Chicken Littles.

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