Effect Measure

Bird flu on the menu

I once read the restaurant industry in the US (and probably elsewhere) is one of the highest mortality businesses around. About half of new restaurants don’t make it through the first year. It is a tough business, long hours, low wages for most. Immigrant labor is common.

Some restaurants do very well for their owners, but most don’t. The industry is always looking over its shoulder at the next problem and their are many. In the US, immigration reform, paying (or trying to avoid paying) health insurance for workers, fending off legislative attempts to force them to pay even half a living wage to their workers, the fear (although not the reality) of lawsuits over unhealthy food they dole out which sickens and fattens their customers. Lots of worries on their plate (so to speak).

It turns out, however, the one currently at the top of their worry list is bird flu.

The restaurant industry will face a slew of issues during the next year, but none has owners and operators more nervous than one they’ve never experienced before: avian flu.

Concerns about a possible bird-flu outbreak were raised by speakers and participants at the National Restaurant Association convention in Chicago this spring.


The potential of a pandemic was on the mind of the convention’s surprise keynote speaker, President Bush.

According to news reports, the president said the federal government has a strategy in place for a bird-flu outbreak in the United States, but he added that, “Whether or not it would work to perfection, you hope you never have to find out.” (Barnet Wolf in his weekly column on the restaurant industry, Columbus Post Dispatch)

I don’t think the President has anything to worry about. His US Department of Agriculture is not likely to find out. At least according to the Department’s own Inspector General:

The Bush administration lacks a comprehensive plan for testing and monitoring bird flu in commercial poultry, a federal audit says.

The industry is testing every flock for bird flu, but the tests are voluntary and there is no method for reporting findings to the government, the Agriculture Department’s inspector general said Tuesday.
As a result, the department does not know the extent of surveillance being done and is not gathering consistent data that would indicate whether the deadly Asian strain of bird flu is present or how widespread it is.


‘The federal government continues to push the responsibility of finding and responding to a possible outbreak of avian influenza on states,’ [Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the Senate Agriculture Committee’s senior Democrat] said. ‘As a result, USDA does not have a comprehensive national plan for surveillance and monitoring of poultry flocks and states lack adequate federal resources to respond to potential avian influenza outbreaks.’ (AP)

Somebody should tell the restaurant moguls. One less thing to worry about.


  1. #1 Melanie
    June 21, 2006

    The failure rate for restaurants is around 60%. I did go out for a chicken sandwich yesterday, while I still can.

  2. #2 Jody Lanard
    June 21, 2006

    Compare how Canada’s Food Inspection Agency quickly and openly reported its most recent LPAI avian influenza episodes with how the U.S. (via the New Jersey Department of Agriculture) belatedly and incompletely reported its most recent LPAI episode:

    Canada link: http://tinyurl.com/l5vwo

    For the November 2005 LPAI episode, read upwards starting with the November 18 bulletin and ending with the December 19 bulletin.

    For the current (June 2006) LPAI episode, read upwards starting with the June 16 bulletin.

    New Jersey link: http://tinyurl.com/hv9f9

    Read upwards starting with the April 28 and then the May 4 press release, on the same page.

    As of today (June 21), the New Jersey Department of Agriculture has not responded to repeated requests for information about the April episode.

  3. #3 Billy Bob Thornton
    June 21, 2006

    May be out of place, but worth mentioning: lets not forget how terrible a death dying from the flu must be. I think we all can recall just how true the ‘begging for death’ feeling is from a normal flu/stomach virus is. I can’t imagine a worse way to go now that I think about it.

    Revere, of course, would put being tickled to death by Dick Cheney high on his list.

  4. #4 Name
    June 21, 2006

    At least your Inspector General is highlighting deficits in the surveillance system. The recent case of H5 in PEI shows that even if we catch a suspected case in Canada, two weeks later our officials might not be able to tell us whether it was or wasn’t a high-path virus, and if it wasn’t a high-path H5 virus, what did actually kill the goose instead. In another two weeks (i.e. almost a month after detection), they might or might not be able to confirm whether it was HP H5N1.

    …by which time our Canadian gooses might be well and truly cooked.

  5. #5 Ricardo
    June 21, 2006

    There’s been lots of whining lately about how poor the Indonesian surveillance system is. It seems like we should start to focus our complaints closer to home and try to prod the U.S. and Canadian agencies to do better.

    In my role as chef-instructor at a cooking school, I was just this morning teaching my students about the nutritional benefits of cooking with poultry and about how widespread the consumption of poultry is throughout the world. Then I launch into the background of the avian influenza problem and discuss some of the possible economic and culinary consequences involved with this disease. Of course I am frank with my students and share any knowledge I have, but I am very uneasy about the entire topic, especially since our medical knowledge is sketchy in so many ways. Revere, I share the anxiety that you describe as present in many of the chefs and owners in our industry.

  6. #6 Eric
    June 21, 2006

    Echoes of the beef industries difficulties (and a law suit against Oprah…) during the Mad Cow scare. Only that was handled with at least a measure of assurance and determination on the part of the government. One wonders how many hamburger joints would be around if the U.S. Government handled BSE as well as it’s handling Avian Influenza, or if the symptims appeared sooner.

  7. #7 LG
    June 21, 2006

    Is there a plan for “preventing” mass foreclosures if the postage system grinds to a halt or e-payments can’t be processed for all our mortgage payments? Or the interest rates being automatically bumped up for those who have credit card balance payments missed for reasons beyond their control? (to say nothing of missed paychecks) The affect upon the infrastructure of our economy is unpredictable, but perhaps some safe guards might offer peace of mind in this planning for such an unknown outcome.

  8. #8 M. Randolph Kruger
    June 21, 2006


    The idea of the USGOVT holding onto the paper of the people during a pandemic would be done by possibly revaluation of our gold. It has already been discussed on what to do “if.” The effects would be widespread. Our dollars would be worth suddenly 100% of their 100 pennies. On the other hand it would crush the economies of every other country as we have for bookeeping purposes artificially held the value down. Look up “Treaty of Bretton Woods”. In any event, we would have a period in a greater than 3% pandemic in which we would lose a bunch of people, jobs lost, jobs gained, payments made,not made. Liquidity is everything and they cant foreclose on those that are dead, nor can they foreclose if the courts are closed (infection vectors).

    So what would they do? First they would initiate likely on Federal level a law that prohibits any action for six months POST of the pandemic. Cant put people out on the street during one… they will infect others. Second, look for the markets to close for about two months. Financial news will be as interesting as the bird flu news.

    Utilities will not be cut off…period. They may not work, but not cut off. Its not that this is being lightly addressed. They just are having a problem coping with the possibilities/probabilities. They now have with the implementation of those bird flu models you might have seen, ones that are in tandem that describe the effects on the poor, fires, cases, mortality, food supplies. They havent been released to the public and I only got to see it for about three minutes yesterday. It aint lookin’ good for the ole US of A in the event of a 10% event even. But their models now accomodate all the way up to an 80% mortality. It even posts up the likely secondary causes of death from non sickness related stuff.

    AS for the credit card thing I would anticipate that their largest money cow will start to die within days of it starting. Its all unsecured debt.

    Variable rate loans might go either way as the government tightens in advance of it, the loosens to either create or keep the economy afloat. The same thing happened in Germany after WWII. They would show up with wheelbarrows full of marks just to get bread.

  9. #9 floridagirl
    June 21, 2006

    M. Randolph Kruger,
    Those are interesting thoughts… I went to a pandemic planning meeting and that topic was brought up. At least locally… There was discussion on when to enact certain laws… (of which I only know of through this discussion) and that the main focus of the planning needs to be to get us through any event with as little loss of life as possible.

    It is true that even those on this committee know people will have the added worry of losing their home on top of the trauma of the pandemic itself.

    The countys main message is to get individuals prepared…. and tell them to help their neighbors….

  10. #10 lg
    June 21, 2006

    I have been concerned that so little mention is made regarding the potential for many more H5N1 caused deaths than we have heard about. Now an accidental disclosure by some Chinese scientists (announced in the past hour+) that a SARS case in China TWO years ago was actually H5N1. And I’ve just read (yes I’m new to all this depth of info availability) about Burma and what a medical tragedy of life they have. Is it possible that many more person to person infections have us way further along this curve toward pandenmic than is being voiced or calculated?

  11. #11 revere
    June 21, 2006

    lg: Remember that when SARS first appeared they thought it was H5N1. The original H5N1s also came from Guangdong to HK, whatever the Chinese gov. is saying. Almost everyone has believed there is a lot more H5N1 human infection around than is officially recorded, but how much no one knows.

  12. #12 LibraryLady
    June 22, 2006

    Ricardo and anyone else: will you elaborate on what you tell your students about personal safety when handling raw chicken or eggs? I prepare food at home, and I am concerned enough to stop buying chicken and eggs altogether if I will be contaminating my hands, the counters and the refrigerator bin with H5N1.

    I know that food preparers wear gloves, etc., health departments dictate what can and can’t be done in the kitchens of restaurants, but I don’t know what those things are. Is the health department giving new instructions to restaurants regarding bird flu?

    Any help would be appreciated.

  13. #13 revere
    June 22, 2006

    LL: Both USDA and FDA have proper food prep advice on their websites. The principles are pretty universal for all pathogens. The main things is to avoid cross contamination of raw and cooked food and wash your hands before and after handling food. Maybe Ricardo wants to weigh in with more details.

  14. #14 LibraryLady
    June 23, 2006

    Revere: Thank you for those suggestions, and I have checked them, very useful. It seems I am such a persnikity library lady I was already doing what the USDA and the FDA have suggested.

    I did find good information on the shelf life of various foodstuffs that I did not know.

    I also know that those government agencies say that even if the chickens have bird flu they are OK to eat if cooked properly. As the main purchaser and preparer of foodstuffs in our household, I will not purchase chicken I suspect or, for heavens sake, KNOW is contaminated with H5N1. The average consumer just won’t do it and mothers with children definitely won’t. The US poultry producers and restauranteurs DO have a lot to worry about.

  15. #15 Science Teacher
    June 23, 2006

    So much has been written about well cooked chicken being safe to eat, but rarely do these articles mention the proper disinfection of surfaces, sinks, cutting boards, sponges, dish cloths, faucets, counters, refrigerators, etc. The H5N1 will last a long time on surfaces. I plan on keeping a bottle of clorox spray handy.

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