Industry To Maintain "Full Confidence" In Product Safety

WASHINGTON, D.C., January 12, 2006 - Dr. Patrick Pilkington, vice president for live production services of Tyson Foods and a member of the National Chicken Council Avian Influenza Task Force, assured members of the foodservice industry recently that the broiler chicken industy is committed to safegaurding flocks and food products from potentially hazardous forms of Avian Infliuenza.

"Our obligation is to make sure that our customers can continue to sell chicken products in full confidence that the food is safe and that customer confidence in the integrity of the product can be maintained," Dr. Pilkington said.

Speaking at a conference sponsored by the National Restaurant Association, Dr. Pilkington described the broiler chicken industry's program to test 100 percent of flocks before they are processed for food.

"By applying this program to each and every flock being produced for food, a participating company will be able to assure its customers that all of its chickens and all of its products are from flocks that have tested clear of potentially hazardous forms of Avian Influenza," he said.

The text of Dr. Pilkington's remarks follows:

Remarks of Dr. Patrick Pilkington, DVM, MAM
Vice President/Live Production Services
Tyson Foods, Inc.
National Restaurant Association Forum on Avian Influenza
January 12, 2006

I would like to thank the National Restaurant Association for sponsoring this timely forum. We appreciate the interest of the customer community in this important subject.

We are here today because of a shared concern over Avian Influenza and a desire to learn more about what it is and what it means to our various businesses. I am here to tell you what the broiler chicken industry is doing about Avian Influenza and how we are taking care of your concerns.

Let me start by telling you what I am not talking about. I am not talking about the pandemic flu – the human form of the disease. What I would like to talk about today is the avian form of avian influenza – a disease of birds that so far is only weakly transmissible from bird to humans.

As the industry that produces and processes chickens for food, our job is to protect our flocks and keep avian influenza out of the food chain. Our obligation is to make sure that our customers can continue to sell chicken products in full confidence that the food is safe and that customer confidence in the integrity of the product can be maintained.

I am speaking here today for the National Chicken Council. The member companies of NCC produce and process more than 95 percent of the chicken sold in the United States. I want to assure you that we recognize that avian influenza is our challenge. I want to further assure you that our industry is fully prepared and fully committed to doing all in our power to ensure that Avian Influenza does not become a problem for our customers.

Our campaign to defeat Avian Influenza takes place on two fronts – foreign and domestic. First I will address the foreign situation – the H5N1 highly pathogenic Asian Bird Flu that has caused so much trouble in Asia.

We do not have Asian Bird Flu in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we have never had a single outbreak of H5N1 highly pathogenic AI in this country. Furthermore working with our partners in government, we have several layers of protection in place to keep it out.

First, countries affected by Asian Bird Flu are not allowed to export live poultry or poultry products to the United States. This is on top of the fact that these countries were not authorized to ship poultry products to the United States to begin with. Not a single plant in Asia was exporting to the U.S. before bird flu became an issue.

It is widely believed that migratory birds are the chief culprits in spreading highly pathogenic avian influenza into the areas in which it does not already exist. This is because wild geese and ducks are known to be natural reservoirs of Avian Influenza viruses. Unfortunately, there is some overlap in Alaska between the Asian flyways and the North American flyways, possibly opening a back door into the country. Government scientists are on the job in this region, taking samples and looking for any evidence that North American birds are carrying the Asian Bird Flu. So far they have taken more than 12,000 samples without finding it.

It is not enough for Asian Bird Flu to enter the country in a migrating duck. The virus must infect domestic poultry before we would have a problem. The key is to keep them away form each other. In the U.S., unlike in Asia, we don’t permit domestic poultry to mix with wild waterfowl. We keep birds in enclosed houses where they are protected from wild birds. The only exceptions are birds raised under organic or free-range conditions, which are required to have access to the outdoors. But the range is actually very small, usually just a pen adjacent to the growout house. There is nothing in the pen to attract wild waterfowl, and I assure you that free-range producers are keeping a very close eye on their birds.

We are also addressing potential human vectors. We want to make sure that no one who works for our industry will accidentally track the virus into a chicken house. At the farm level, we encourage farmers to practice good biosecurity and wear boot covers or dedicated footwear while working in the chicken houses. Anyone in the industry who has been to an area affected by Asian Bird Flu is expected to clean and sanitize his shoes and clothing and to stay out of hatcheries and growout houses for at least seven days after his return to the United States.

Finally, Asian Bird Flu is hard to miss. It causes very heavy mortality in chickens and does it very quickly. If we did somehow have an outbreak, the response from industry and government would be swift and decisive. The affected flock would be destroyed and the area quarantined. Neighboring flocks would be tested and any infected flocks destroyed, and so on until the area is considered clear. There is simply no chance that Asian Bird Flu would gain a foothold in this country without someone noticing.

On balance, we believe that the chance of Asian Bird Flu becoming a significant problem in the United States is extremely small.

The other front is the domestic one – the possibility of an outbreak in the United States of a form of Avian Influenza that is not related to Asian Bird Flu. Our industry has always taken Avian Influenza very seriously, and in the current climate we realize that we have to take extraordinary precautions in order to maintain customer and consumer confidence.

Our industry has some experience with sporadic outbreaks of Avian Influenza. In 2004, we had outbreaks in Delaware, Maryland, and Texas. All these situations were quickly contained and eradicated and did not give rise to widespread epidemics. The biggest outbreak in recent years was in Virginia in 2002, when it took several months to stamp it out and about five million turkeys and chickens had to be destroyed. Before that, we had not had a big outbreak in almost twenty years, in Pennsylvania and Virginia in 1983-84. Avian influenza is by no means a routine or annual event in broiler chickens.

Not all avian influenza viruses are alike as they come in many varieties. Most of them are capable of causing only mild clinical signs. These viruses are called low-pathogenic avian influenza. It is also important to remember that low-pathogenic AI is not a food safety issue because the virus is not found in poultry meat.

Of the broad categories of the virus, only the H5 and H7 varieties are believed to be capable of changing from a low-pathogenic condition to a highly pathogenic state, in which the entire flock can be wiped out.

The National Chicken Council has adopted a program to ensure food safety and to address the need to prevent any type of low-pathogenic outbreak from becoming highly pathogenic. The NCC program has been adopted by the vast majority of companies in the industry, including some that are not even members of NCC.

Our program is based on testing. No sooner than 14 days before a flock goes to market, while it is still on the farm, the flock will be tested for Avian Influenza. If the result is suspicious, the farm will be isolated and the tests repeated. If further testing confirms the presence of AI in the H5 or H7 categories, that flock will be promptly and humanely destroyed on the farm and disposed of through environmentally acceptable means. No chickens from that entire flock will go to the processing plant or enter the food chain in any way.

All the flocks of a participating company will be tested – 100 percent. No flock with a confirmed finding of H5 or H7 AI will go to market.

By applying this program to each and every flock being produced for food, a participating company will be able to ensure its customers that all of its chickens and all of its products are from flocks that have tested clear of potentially hazardous forms of Avian Influenza.

We already have extensive testing for Avian Influenza in our industry. Thousands of tests are conducted every year under federal, state and company monitoring. However, this is the first time that a testing requirement has been applied to each and every flock.

You may wonder if this program could lead to many flocks being destroyed and to a shortage of chickens. Let me assure you that this will not be the case. We believe that we already have very good protection against Avian Influenza and that very few flocks will be found to be infected. This is a question of consumer confidence, not a question of supply.

We understand the concerns that have been raised by the customer community about Avian Influenza. We hope that our program will go a long way toward answering those concerns and maintaining the high confidence that American consumers have in the safety and quality of their food supply.