Nutrition Column – Avian Flu: Keeping Poultry and Eggs Safe

If you saw Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 movie, "The Birds," the thought of birds as carriers of a deadly flu virus now seems like a Hitchcock remake. Still, experts from around the world are watching the avian flu situation in Asia and Europe very closely and preparing for the possibility that the virus might mutate and begin to spread more easily from person to person, creating a worldwide epidemic. What is avian flu, why the concern and what can you do to protect yourself?

Avian (bird) flu is an infection caused by influenza viruses that occur naturally among birds. Wild birds worldwide carry flu viruses in their intestines, but usually don’t get sick from them. However, avian flu is very contagious among birds and can make some domesticated birds, including chickens, turkeys, and ducks, very sick. Domestic birds become infected through direct contact with waterfowl or other poultry that have the illness, or by contact with contaminated surfaces, water or feed.  

There are many types of avian flu viruses, some more pathogenic than others. The avian flu virus causing the recent concern is the H5N1 virus, which occurs mainly in birds, but has adapted so that it has the ability to infect humans and cause severe illness. Thus far, more than 150 human cases, half of which have ended in death, have been reported throughout the world since human cases of avian flu first appeared in Southeast Asia at the end of 2003. Most of these cases have been caused by direct or close contact with infected domestic poultry or contaminated surfaces; however, a few cases of human-to-human spread of H5N1 also have been seen.  

While no cases have yet appeared in the U.S. or Canada, researchers fear the virus could adapt as influenza viruses often do and could gain the ability to spread much more easily among humans, potentially triggering a worldwide outbreak of the disease in a population with no developed immune protection. For this reason, vaccines are being developed and clinical trials are ongoing.

Symptoms of avian flu range from typical flu-like symptoms (fever, cough, sore throat and body aches) to more serious eye infections, pneumonia and acute respiratory distress. The greatest risk of exposure to the avian flu virus is through the handling and slaughtering of live infected poultry. Transmission is also possible through surfaces contaminated by poultry feces. Poultry products, however, are safe to eat as long as proper preparation and consumption precautions are taken.  

The World Health Organization recommends the following precautions to prevent avian flu.

– If you come across any dead or sick birds, do not touch them.

– Cook all poultry to an internal temperature of 180F. The virus is not killed by refrigeration or freezing but is destroyed by conventional cooking.

– Cook eggs until the white and yolk are firm. Because eggs can contain H5N1 virus both on the outside (shell) and inside (whites and yolk), eggs from areas with H5N1 outbreaks in poultry should not be consumed raw or partially cooked (runny yolk). Cooking eggs thoroughly is also a good way to prevent the spread of salmonella and other bacteria or viruses that may be present.

– Carefully avoid cross-contamination during food preparation. Drippings or juice from raw poultry should never be allowed to come into contact with prepared foods, and surfaces used to prepare raw meat should be cleaned thoroughly with soap and hot water.

– Wash hands thoroughly with soap and hot water after handling raw poultry to prevent the spread of any viruses or bacteria.

For more information on this emerging health concern, go to:

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by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension