DALLAS - With bird flu outbreaks causing demand for poultry to drop in other countries, the chicken industry in the United States faces the challenge of reassuring consumers abroad that American poultry is safe, an industry representative said at the Annual Meat Conference here.
Getting the message across is important, since foreign markets are top buyers of chicken leg quarters produced in the United States. Losing that business would create a glut of products that American retailers would have to sell for pennies on the pound, he said.
"We can educate consumers in other countries where avian influenza [has struck]," said Bill Roenigk, senior vice president for the National Chicken Council. "[But] it's going to take awhile for that confidence to come back."
Roenigk commented on bird flu during a wide ranging panel discussion that brought together representatives from the chicken, turkey, beef and pork industries. Virginia Beach-based consultant Harold Lloyd moderated the discussion.
For his part, Roenigk described avian influenza as "the greatest threat our industry is facing. We are working diligently to minimize any problems."
Roenigk said he does not expect the deadly form of AI to strike in the United States.
"We don't have it," he said. "We don't import products from countries that have it. I don't believe it'll come here even from migratory birds. I'm confident it's not going to come into our commercial flocks."
Nevertheless, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials and others monitoring the situation are not so optimistic. "I realize I'm in a shrinking minority," Roenigk said.
The poultry industry has a number of safeguards in place to minimize the potential for AI to strike commercial flocks. Industry representatives insist the way most chickens are raised in the United States - in closed quarters, not out in the open - protects the birds from AI. Here the number of backyard flocks is small, compared to other countries that have had bird flu outbreaks.
Avian flu is an animal health issue, not a food safety issue, emphasized Sherrie Rosenblatt, senior director of marketing and communications for the National Turkey Federation.
The risk of AI striking in the United States is "very low," she said. "Should it happen here, turkeys would be eradicated and would not make it to the marketplace."
Poultry consumption in the United States has not been hurt by the bird flu situation, she added.
Rosenblatt encouraged members of the audience to check the website, avianinfluenzainfo.org, for the latest information.
Like poultry, the beef industry is working to win back the confidence of leery consumers abroad. Beef producers here are hopeful Japan will re-open its markets to American beef in the next few weeks or months, said Mark Thomas, vice president of global marketing for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. [Thomas made his comments before the third U.S. case of mad cow was confirmed in Alabama last week.] Like many countries around the world, Japan imposed a ban on American beef after the December 2003 discovery of a case of mad cow disease in Washington state. Japan recently reopened its markets but closed them abruptly after inspectors found unauthorized veal products in a shipment from the U.S.
Close to home, American confidence in beef seems to be strong. Demand has been growing in recent years, Thomas said. Over the last four years, beef spending has increased about 45%, to $70 billion.
"Eighty-eight percent of Americans eat beef once every two weeks," Thomas said. "The beef industry is a cyclical industry. We'll work hard with our retail partners to keep beef moving."
Similarly, all cuts of pork are experiencing sales increases, said Dallas Hockman, vice president of demand enhancement for the National Pork Board.
In recent years, pork producers have recognized the importance of Hispanic consumers, who are enthusiastic buyers of fresh pork, he said.
"We don't have to convince them" to eat pork, Hockman said.
However, other consumers require education. Research shows people under the age of 40 are less comfortable with pork than older consumers, he said. The NPB's "Don't Be Blah" advertising campaign shows consumers new ways to use "the other white meat."