Bird Flu Fears Impact Business

DANGEROUS BIRD FLU stayed out of the United States, yet its presence in other countries had an impact on business here. Although the U.S. doesn't import products from countries that have had avian flu, demand for American exports still decreased and the U.S. meat industry saw prices hit three-year lows this year. While chicken prices dropped sharply, the bargains offered by retailers drove chicken

DANGEROUS BIRD FLU stayed out of the United States, yet its presence in other countries had an impact on business here.

Although the U.S. doesn't import products from countries that have had avian flu, demand for American exports still decreased and the U.S. meat industry saw prices hit three-year lows this year. While chicken prices dropped sharply, the bargains offered by retailers drove chicken sales up, according to retailers who talked to SN earlier this year.

Industry groups devoted substantial amounts of money and time to consumer-education campaigns assuring people that poultry is safe. The USA Poultry & Egg Council spent more than $1 million in a campaign designed to instill confidence in shoppers and promote poultry consumption worldwide. In December, the international donor community pledged $475 million in a worldwide effort to fight bird flu.

Consumers got mixed messages about the disease. While industry groups pointed out poultry is safe as long as it's cooked, the United Nations warned the public that trade, people and migratory birds could spread the disease easily.

In May, a deadly form of the flu claimed the lives of six members of the same family in Indonesia. While the virus did not become easily infectious and was confined to the single family, it pointed out the lack of surveillance systems and limited virus information with which public health officials contend.

Italy, Greece and France experienced drastic drops in poultry sales since cases of the H5N1 virus were reported in those countries earlier this year. Italy experienced a 70% drop in sales, Greece saw sales fall 40% to 50% and France's sales declined by about 15%, according to the World Health Organization.

Also, the federal government urged U.S. companies to prepare for the possibility of the avian flu and outlined a plan for expanded bird flu surveillance. The Food Marketing Institute produced a position paper on how companies can prepare for bird flu. A handful of retailers, including Publix Super Markets, Food Lion, Wal-Mart Stores and Costco Wholesale, worked with FMI and the departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services and Homeland Security to map out strategies.

In August, expanded bird flu testing uncovered H5N1 avian influenza in samples from swans in Michigan, but the National Chicken Council said there was nothing to worry about since avian flu viruses are found in wild birds all the time. Also in August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of the Interior made plans to increase surveillance.

Earlier this year, the NCC established a voluntary bird flu-testing program for its members. Thousands of commercial flocks had been tested each month as part of the program.