WASHINGTON - Misinformed Americans may be too chicken to eat poultry once bird flu lands in North America, according to a new survey.
At the same time, however, the industry is counting on reduced prices to draw consumers to the poultry cases.
The National Chicken Council did not expect bird flu-related fears to affect the amount of chicken Americans consume this Memorial Day weekend.
"The Fourth of July is the strongest holiday for chicken consumption and Memorial Day weekend is a close second," said Bill Roenigk, senior vice president of NCC, based here. "This is going to be a summer that presents more attractive prices for consumers."
He said he has not seen evidence that would suggest a bird flu-related dip in poultry sales would occur over the holiday weekend.
If the H5N1 virus arrived in North America, 25% of American respondents, and 22% of Canadians, indicated they would eat less poultry or stop eating it all together, according to an online poll, conducted by London-based market research firm Synovate.
Indeed, poultry sales have declined sharply in countries where bird flu has cropped up. A month after the virus was detected in birds there, Italy experienced a 70% drop in poultry sales, sales in Greece fell 40%-50% and sales in France dropped by about 15%, the World Health Organization reported in March.
Survey respondents said they would replace poultry with beef first, followed by fish. Pork was the third most popular poultry stand-in, followed by soy and lamb, respectively.
Bird flu cannot be transmitted to people who've consumed infected poultry that's been properly cooked. Thirty percent of Americans and 38% of Canadians surveyed said they would be more likely to continue eating chicken and other poultry if they knew that the virus could not be contracted by eating properly cooked chicken.
But only 10% of American respondents and 13% of Canadian respondents have sought out information about the virus. Industry groups worry that consumers are being misguided.
The industry cried "fowl" when ABC-TV aired the controversial movie "Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America" earlier this month. The movie over-dramatized a worse-case scenario, according to critics.
"This movie is a sensationalized Hollywood production that is complete fiction and bears no resemblance to anything actually going on in the world today," noted a joint statement issued in response to the movie by the NCC, National Turkey Federation, the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association and the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council.
ABC agreed to run a disclaimer stating that the movie was a work of fiction, and that the pandemic virus that is the subject of the movie is different from the H5N1 strain, which is also known as Asian Flu.
Government and industry groups have worked to set the record straight. The Department of Health and Human Services sought to address any questions raised by the movie by posting a viewers guide complete with anticipated questions and answers for the movie's viewers on www.pandemicflu.gov.
The guide reminds viewers that there is currently no influenza pandemic in the world and that if the H5N1 virus were to arrive in the U.S. it would not indicate the start of a pandemic.
Although much attention has been given to the possibility of a human pandemic, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization warns that the virus' potential effect on bird populations should not be taken lightly.
In a statement released recently by the FAO, Joseph Domenech, chief veterinary officer, said that the damage the disease will cause to birds and domestic poultry in particular will be tremendous and the effects on local, national and regional economies could be quite significant.
The American Meat Institute, Washington, has released English and Spanish-language bird flu brochures that retailers can print from www.poultrysafe.org and distribute to consumers. Created to ease fears about bird flu, the brochures explain what the virus is, how it is spread and what the U.S. poultry industry is doing to protect flocks from the virus if it arrives here.
Similarly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has produced radio and television public service announcements to assure consumers that they're safe from bird flu as long as the poultry they eat has been cooked properly.
The NCC's website, www.nationalchickencouncil.com, also contains avian influenza-related information for consumers including information about how bird flu, like all microorganisms, is killed by the heat of normal cooking.
Last year, the National Turkey Federation, along with the NCC and Egg Safety Center launched the website www.avianinfluenzainfo.com to highlight the fact that the H5N1 virus doesn't exist in the United States, and if it did, the disease wouldn't be a food issue.
McDonald's, Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits, Subway and KFC are also communicating bird flu-related messages to consumers, according to published reports.
Although the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of avian influenza has yet to be detected in the United States, it most likely will arrive via migratory birds later this year, according to Gale Norton, U.S. secretary of the interior. Earlier this month, scientists began testing these wild birds in Alaska.
There is no evidence that suggests that bird flu can transfer easily from person to person, but experts think that a mutated form of the H5N1 virus - which looks genetically similar to the Spanish Flu of 1918 - could.
The Spanish Flu was a strain of avian influenza believed responsible for the deaths of several million people worldwide.