The United States is in the midst of the largest outbreak of avian influenza H5, also known as bird flu, in the country’s history.
Cases have been confirmed in 15 states with millions of birds infected with the disease, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. No humans have been infected at this time, and doctors say the biggest threat to people is the rising cost of breakfast.
How does it spread?
Avian influenza is believed to have originated in Asia and is spread by wild birds as they migrate. Wild birds typically show no symptoms of the disease, but it can be deadly in domestic birds. The virus is excreted through the feces of infected birds and through secretions from the nose, mouth and eyes. It is primarily spread through direct contact with infected birds or contaminated equipment and materials.
“The risk of infection for the general population is very low,” said Dr. William Harley of Novant Health Infectious Disease Specialists in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Most human infections of avian influenza viruses occur in people who have had direct contact with infected birds.”
In humans, symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat and muscle aches.
Is my food safe?
According to the Food and Drug Administration, while avian influenza can be found on the outer surfaces of egg shells and, in some cases, in the yolk and egg white, the virus cannot be transmitted through eggs or poultry that have been properly prepared.
"It is always important to handle raw chicken and eggs carefully to prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses like salmonella,” Harley said. “In the U.S., the risk that your food would be a carrier for avian influenza is small, but proper cooking and handling will protect you should the virus be present.”
The FDA recommends taking the following precautions when cooking with raw poultry products:
- Clean cutting boards and other utensils with soap and hot water to keep raw poultry or eggs from contaminating other foods.
- Cook poultry to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Consumers can cook poultry to a higher temperature for personal preference.
- Choose either shell eggs that have been treated to destroy contaminants by pasteurization or another approved method, or pasteurized egg products for recipes that call for eggs that are raw or undercooked when the dish is served. Treated shell eggs are available from a growing number of retailers and are clearly labeled. Pasteurized egg products are widely available.
Stopping the spread
The USDA has strict guidelines in place to limit the spread of avian influenza and to protect consumers from infected products. When there is a suspected case of flu in a domestic flock, the birds and any equipment used to care for them are quarantined. Once the virus is confirmed, the affected flock is euthanized and their eggs are destroyed.
Wild and domestic birds in the area are closely monitored and tested and the affected facility is thoroughly disinfected. Tests must confirm that the facility is virus-free before regular operations can resume.
“Wild water fowl like ducks and geese tend to be carriers of avian influenza, but may not show any symptoms,” Harley said. “Avoid handling wild birds, and contact your local authorities if you come across dead or sick animals.”
How does this affect me?
Recent reports estimate that about 35 million birds have been lost to avian flu since December, causing a spike in egg prices. In June, the USDA predicted that a dozen large Grade A eggs in New York would cost between $1.60 and $1.66 on average in 2015 – well above the $1.30 to $1.36 price range predicted in May.
So far, restaurants and producers of products that contain eggs such as mayonnaise, salad dressing, cake mix and bread are feeling the brunt of the impact. Last week, Morrison Healthcare Food Services announced that, due to the current egg shortage, they would be limiting eggs in Novant Health facility cafés to a made-to-order basis only.