Seeking to reassure people that chicken is safe to eat, U.S. chicken producers will begin testing all their flocks to ensure that they are free from hazardous forms of avian influenza.
Samples will be taken for testing on the farm before the birds are moved to processing plants, under a program announced today by the National Chicken Council, a trade group. Companies that account for more than 90 percent of the nearly 10 billion chickens produced in 2005 in the U.S. have signed up for the testing program, and the Council said it expects more to follow.
Every flock will be tested before the birds are slaughtered. Tests will strictly follow the procedures approved by the National Poultry Improvement Plan, an existing federal-state cooperative program, the Washington, D.C.-based chicken council said in a statement.
The U.S., the world's largest producer and exporter of poultry, is preparing for the possibility that of the lethal H5N1 strain of bird flu reaching domestic flocks, threatening a $29 billion industry. The virus, which has never been found in the U.S. so far, led to the destruction of millions of birds in Asia and parts of eastern Europe, and resulted in at least 74 human deaths since 2003.
Testing U.S. flocks would add another layer to the multiple barriers that already exist to protect American consumers. Chicken prices at the grocery store have dropped in recent months.
Flocks found with the H5 or H7 form of bird flu will be humanely destroyed, the council said. Poultry producers accounting for more than 90 percent of chicken production in the U.S. have enrolled in program, and most will have it in place by Jan. 16, council spokesman Richard Lobb said.
The program will have "only a minimal impact" on costs to producers and will not affect poultry prices at the supermarket, Lobb said.
Consumers should also make sure poultry meat is properly cooked before it is consumed, the council said. The avian flu virus can't withstand high temperatures, so cooking poultry to a temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit (71 Celsius) ensures the meat is safe to eat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.