Bird flu no imminent threat to Oregon consumers says OSU expert

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Although fears of deadly “bird flu” have caused an explosion of concern in the United States and globally, the disease does not appear to present an imminent threat to Oregon poultry consumers or the state’s poultry industry, according to an Oregon State University Extension Service poultry expert.

Bird flu is the lay term given to infections of avian influenza virus. There are many strains of avian influenza that do not usually infect humans. However, the H5N1 strain has been transmitted from chickens to humans and so far is blamed for more than 60 deaths caused by respiratory infections, mostly in Asia. International disease control experts are concerned about a bird flu pandemic, or worldwide outbreak of the disease, which could occur if human-to-human transmission of the virus begins.

Such concerns have raised questions about whether it is safe to eat poultry.

“Consumers needn’t be overly concerned about bird flu being transmitted via poultry products,” said Jim Hermes, OSU Extension Service poultry specialist. “At this time, there is no evidence that the avian influenza H5N1 virus can be infective to humans by consuming cooked poultry products.”

According to Hermes, poultry and poultry products should be safe to eat provided that consumers observe standard food safety practices in preparing poultry. These procedures include washing hands while preparing food, proper cleaning of cutting boards, avoiding cross-contamination of uncooked poultry juices with other food items, and proper cooking of poultry meat and eggs.

Oregon’s $83-million egg and broiler production industry is well-prepared to respond to disease problems, including bird flu, Hermes added.

“Recent disease issues have helped the industry plan careful safeguards that can be put into effect quickly,” Hermes said. “The 2003 outbreak of Exotic Newcastle Disease is a good example. The disease caused much damage in California where it killed thousands of chickens in commercial operations, but it did not get into Oregon due to U.S. Department of Agriculture action and industry diligence.”

Newcastle disease attacks the respiratory and nervous systems of chickens and is nearly 100 percent fatal. Oregon producers responded to that threat by introducing quarantine procedures and isolating commercial flocks from all contact with other birds, whether wild or domestic, Hermes said.

The poultry industry also has instituted strictly applied sanitation procedures for employees who work directly with poultry, he added.

Hermes noted that poultry producers have had to deal with outbreaks of various strains of avian influenza for years.

“The different mutations of bird flu virus that hit the industry always present an economic threat in terms of birds that may become infected and die,” said Hermes. “However, humans usually aren’t at risk from these outbreaks. The current bird flu problem is somewhat unique in that the avian influenza H5N1 virus has infected several humans.”

Although the poultry industry is well-prepared, Hermes emphasized that more can be done to prepare for disease outbreaks.

“Just like the large operators, homeowners who keep small flocks of chickens or other birds need to be ready to respond to problems like Newcastle disease or bird flu,” said Hermes.

He urges small flock owners to practice normal biosecurity procedures such as isolating their birds from all others, including other poultry, pet shop birds, and wild birds as much as possible.

“The H5N1, or bird flu, is not currently known to be in North America, but if it does break out in this part of the world, biosecurity will be a vital part of reducing the spread of the virus,” he said.

Across campus, scientists at OSU's Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in the College of Veterinary Medicine are charged with avian flu surveillance within the state. Lab workers test about 100 samples per year from home and commercial poultry operations to assure that avian flu hasn't made an appearance within Oregon.

Other OSU veterinary medicine researchers are working to develop vaccines against the virus, as well as ways to rapidly test for the disease in the field.

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Jim Hermes

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