The problem of H5N1 contaminated food keeps coming up (see here and here). First it was, don’t worry, stomach acid will kill it. Then it was, don’t worry, you can’t be infected through the intestinal tract. Then it was, don’t worry, proper cooking kills the virus. The last of these is correct but isn’t a reason not to worry. Somebody has to “properly cook” the food, so during preparation and food handling there is a risk of contact with possibly infectious material. Then there is “ready-to-eat” foods (like from the deli) which aren’t cooked. Then there is contamination of animal foods that are consumed by livestock or pets without cooking. So the answers to the other questions, about stomach acid and the ability to be infected via ingestion, are important. So far we don’t have definitive answers to them.
The news from the poultry industry and the US FDA continues to be upbeat, but there isn’t quite as much denial as earlier. The virus is teaching us how much we have to learn:
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will study the potential for bird flu to contaminate prepared foods, including fish, animal feed and poultry.
The agency will compile a list of foods and dietary supplements at risk of contamination with avian influenza because they contain meat from poultry, come from animals that live near birds or might have been in contact with infected humans, according to a document posted today on the FDA Web site.
Proper cooking of chicken and other poultry kills H5N1, the deadly bird virus that has spread to some people, said the agency, based in Rockville, Maryland. Scientists say the virus might set off a deadly pandemic among humans. “Ready-to-eat” foods that require little or no cooking might be contaminated with virus by workers who have bird flu, exposing people who consume the foods. (John Laurman, Bloomberg)
It might seem obvious to you, as a consumer, why we want to know the answer to these questions. But the FDA phrases it differently — and revealingly:
“We know the effect that avian influenza has had on the public perception of food in Europe where there have been outbreaks,” said Boris Lushniak, the FDA assistant commissioner who wrote the plan, in a telephone interview today. “We want food and feed safety issues to be answered, in case we were to have avian influenza in this country.”
They want the food safety issues to be answered because – – – if bird flu comes it will affect public perception of food? Yes, I’d way it would, especially poultry. But I want to know the answers to these questions because I want to know if I’ll get sick from H5N1 contaminated food. Once you bring public perception into it you make me nervous that you won’t tell me everything “because you don’t want to scare me.”
That scares me.