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Business Prepares for the Possibility of Avian Flu in the United States

March 21, 2006 - By MELANIE WARNER
The New York Times

The deadly strain of avian flu has not been found anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, but Mark Holden, a chicken grower for Tyson Foods in Ellijay, Ga., is not taking any chances.

Every seven weeks a group of his chickens is tested before the birds are sent to be slaughtered. All people who enter or leave the chicken houses must walk through disinfecting baths. And visitors and workers must wear plastic booties over their shoes.

"Even though we don't have any outbreak now, we want to take all the precautions we can to protect our product," said Mr. Holden, who has been in the chicken business for 10 years and lives across the street from one of his chicken houses.

Poultry producers and restaurants doubt that their chickens will be infected by avian flu or that people would catch the virus even if there were contamination. But they are concerned that if the virus gets to the United States, people will eat less chicken, simply out of fear. And they are revving up big plans to be prepared.

In Senate testimony earlier this month, Michael Leavitt, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, declared that it was "just a matter of time" before birds infected with the virus found their way to the United States.

The stakes are enormous. United States poultry producers like Tyson, Pilgrim's Pride and Gold Kist sell 26 billion pounds of chicken each year. Restaurant chains — chief among them McDonald's, KFC and Wendy's — sell 45 percent of that.

Sales of chicken are growing. Over the last 10 years, consumption of chicken has increased by 22 percent, while beef consumption has remained flat, according to the Department of Agriculture.

If Europe and Asia are any indication, chicken sales could take quite a hit. In February, after avian flu was discovered in wild swans, poultry consumption declined 70 percent in Italy. In France, sales are down 30 percent since avian flu hit a turkey farm last month. In some areas of India, sales are down 40 percent since last month's discovery of avian flu in chickens.

These declines came even though none of the 175 human cases of avian flu confirmed by the World Health Organization since 2003 resulted from eating poultry.

Dick Thompson, a spokesman for the World Health Organization, said most of the cases of humans contracting avian flu have been from people coming into direct contact with infected poultry, though one case in Vietnam appears to have been a result of someone drinking infected duck blood.

Public health officials consider it unlikely that people will catch the virus from eating chicken. Chicken producers say that any sick birds would immediately be destroyed and would not enter the market. While the deadly strain of avian flu, called H5N1, now hitting Europe and Asia can reside in poultry meat, the virus is killed by the temperatures normally used to cook poultry.

Nonetheless, a Harvard School of Public Health nationwide telephone survey of 1,043 adults in January found that 46 percent of respondents who eat chicken said they would stop eating it if avian flu hit the United States poultry industry.

In October, Yum Brands, which owns KFC, told investors that, based on its experiences with avian flu in China, it estimated that in the worst situation, chicken sales would drop 10 percent to 20 percent if there were widespread concerns about avian flu.

Chicken processors and restaurant chains are already working feverishly to minimize any sales declines. Companies are working on communications strategies that can be set into motion at a moment's notice. These plans deal with avian flu in birds and not the feared hypothetical mutation of the virus into a human-to-human form. Future mutations could make avian flu contagious among humans, and possibly generate a pandemic.

Tyson, Pilgrim's Pride, KFC, Chick-fil-A and Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits all say they have formed internal avian flu task forces that meet regularly and include top executives and leaders from different departments. These executives have been meeting with government health officials, discussing what information should go on the companies' Web sites and when, and devising sales loss projections.

Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits, the country's No. 3 chicken chain behind KFC and Chick-fil-A, said its task force met weekly, often in conjunction with the Ledlie Group, an Atlanta-based crisis management agency. KFC said that it had created TV and print ads aimed at convincing people that eating fully cooked chicken was safe. The ad campaign, which was produced by Creative Alliance, an agency in Louisville, Ky., where Yum Brands is based, is ready to go if a crisis strikes.

"It's on the shelf collecting dust," said Jonathan Blum, a Yum spokesman.

Tyson, the country's largest chicken producer, is working on an ad campaign that will run if chicken sales decline, or if consumers start to get nervous.

McDonald's, the country's largest restaurant buyer of chicken, said it had been working on avian flu contingency plans, but declined to discuss details.

At many chain restaurants, including McDonald's, chicken has helped bolster sales more than any other menu item. In presentations to analysts and investors, McDonald's has credited its new line of higher-priced premium chicken sandwiches and its chicken-topped premium salads with increasing sales at outlets in the United States that have been open for more than a year.

Arby's, which is known for its roast beef sandwiches but gets 15 percent of its sales from chicken products, said it was spending more money than it had for any other new product to promote its new line of so-called chicken naturals. Chicken naturals are all chicken, with no added water or chemicals.

Some analysts think avian flu in birds, like mad cow disease in beef, may turn out to be a nonissue for consumers. Since mad cow was first discovered in the United States in late 2003, beef consumption has remained constant, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

"In the U.S. I think we generally have a greater trust in the government to ensure food safety than they do in Europe and Asia," said John Glass, an analyst at CIBC World Markets. "I'd be surprised if U.S. consumers really react to this."

But some in the chicken industry worry that avian flu will be much more frightening to consumers than mad cow. "I get asked about it all the time," said Steve Gold, vice president for marketing at Murray's Chicken, a producer of humanely raised chicken. "I think people have this idea that it's going to be like Alfred Hitchcock with all these birds flying into their community and everyone getting sick."

Mr. Gold notes that unlike mad cow, avian flu is highly contagious among birds and has the potential to travel long distances in unpredictable patterns.

He and others in the chicken industry are busy honing a message that the nation's chicken populations are well protected from wild, migratory birds that may be the initial carriers of the disease.

A Web site set up by the National Chicken Council, the National Turkey Federation and the Egg Safety Center ( promotes the industry's modern system of enclosed, confined chicken growing as an effective line of defense against the spread of avian flu.

The 20,000 to 24,000 birds that reside in a single growing house on the average industrial chicken farm lack access to the outdoors, or even to sunlight — something that has long drawn criticism from animal welfare activists and has helped fuel the growth in free-range and humanely produced chicken. The virtue of isolating chickens, said Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, is that no chicken is likely to come into contact with wild birds that may be infected.

"Things here are not like they are in Asia where chickens are running around outdoors in people's backyards," Mr. Lobb said. "It's much more controlled."

He added that while thousands of free-roaming and backyard chickens were infected in Thailand in 2004, none of the country's large-scale, commercial chicken flocks in enclosed facilities were hit.

Mr. Lobb said chickens sold as free-range or organic, meaning they are allowed access to the outdoors, may be more susceptible to avian flu transmission, but this group represents less than 1 percent of the chicken production.

The Egg Safety Center said that consumers should not worry about eggs being infected with the avian flu virus because sick hens either stop laying eggs or lay poor-quality eggs that would not be acceptable for sale.

Some government officials said that if avian flu arrived on United States shores, it would probably be from migratory birds.

Susan Haseltine, assistant director for biology at the United States Geological Survey and an expert on bird migration, said government scientists had their eyes on the bird pathways from Asia to Alaska. "One species with high potential is the pintail," Ms. Haseltine said. "It migrates from Alaska to the southern U.S., to the Gulf Coast and Southern California. They have the ability to fly long distances."

The Department of Agriculture said that since 2000, 12,000 tests had been done on birds in western Alaska and none had been found with the deadly version of avian flu. Ms. Haseltine said there was little bird passage across the Atlantic from Europe.

Other experts say that avian flu is more likely to reach the United States through the illicit trade of poultry from infected countries. Importing birds or poultry meat from countries that have had outbreaks of avian flu is banned, but Rob Fergus, science coordinator for the National Audubon Society, said there were probably instances of smuggled products. "There are a lot of holes in biosecurity in our ports. I'm much more concerned about poultry shipments than wild birds," he said.

There is, of course, still the small chance that North America may be somehow spared from avian flu. But companies like Chick-fil-A are not counting on that. "The question is not if, but when," said Don Perry, a spokesman for Chick-fil-A. "You can't put big nets in the sky to prevent birds from flying here."

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