Sunday, December 11, 2005

What's the real danger?

A difference in opinion seems to be widening within the ranks of Nation’s Restaurant News, just as it is in the industry at large. Not in our news and feature stories, where objectivity is the rule. But the writers behind the paper’s op-ed pages clearly don’t agree on the risks posed by avian flu and what the industry should be doing to protect itself.

My voice may admittedly be the shrillest, because, as I’ve asserted in my column, I fear the industry is pooh-poohing a potential catastrophe. I’m not sure the typical restaurant operator has even sized up the wildest threat, the chance that a pandemic could erupt, resulting in quarantined sections of the country, widespread infection and fatalities, food shortages, and generally a massive up-ending of life as usual. (Before you jump on me for offering that scenario, keep in mind that those are the possibilities put forth by the Bush Administration, not me personally.) The prevailing mindset seems to be, “Oh, yeah. It could really affect my chicken sales. I may have to switch to other proteins for awhile.”

While they’re living by that assessment, BusinessWeek is reporting that the impact “could be comparable to The Great Depression.” Last week, U.S. Senate majority leader Bill Frist disclosed that a soon-to-be released Congressional study will show the flu could cut national economic activity by 5%, or $675 billion. That’s a lot more than dampened chicken sales. According to Frist, who’s also a respected medical doctor, 90 million Americans could be affected, and 2 million of them will die. A pandemic won’t be a poultry sales problem. It’ll be a social and economic dislocation.

That’s why I believe more firmly than ever that the industry should at least be mindful of the worst-case possibilities, instead of shrugging them off as scaremongering.

But a lot of smart people have a different assessment, and they wield some persuasive reasons. One non-industry columnist quoted a federal official’s chilling warning that the country was in danger of being paralyzed by a nightmarish pandemic. Then the writer revealed he’d resurrected the dire quotes from news stories that ran in 1995, when the country was facing a similar flu threat. The most the nation actually suffered was a spike in sick days.

Many of the optimists maintain the biggest fear is fear itself—that the public will react negatively to what-if’s, making the dire forecasts a self-fulfilling prophecy. Focusing on the extreme possibilities does nothing more than stoke public hysteria, they argue. They emphasize the need for industry and government to allay fears.

A few weeks ago, Nation’s Restaurant News ran an editorial headlined, “Panic over flu threat for the birds, but operators should prepare safeguards” (retrievable, for a slight fee, from our archives at Citing a dearth of evidence that avian flu can be passed to humans via poultry consumption, the opinion piece recommended that “such information should be shared with all restaurant employees to improve the odds that nervous, uninformed guests might be set straight.” It also advised restaurateurs to take such additional steps as fortifying health programs for employees, and reviewing sick-worker policies. But all in all, it sounded a three-bell alarm, whereas I was at DefCom 5.

But both assessments looked like unbridled hysteria compared with the perception voiced by the Center for Consumer Freedom , the Washington, DC-based lobbying group headed by NRN columnist Rick Berman. In a press release, Berman’s group asserted, “A massive U.S. media focus on avian influenza, coupled with needless hysteria from animal rights activists who see bird flu as an opportunity to promote vegetarianism, has generated widespread fear that has no basis in reality.” As evidence, it noted that a poll it sponsored found 47% of consumers “mistakenly” believe they can contract bird flu by eating chicken, a “false statement.” It called on government to ally public fears on the matter.

I’m not going to blast either assessment that differs from mine. Indeed, I hope I’m wrong. But I do have to take issue on one major point. Both parties have suggested you couldn’t contract avian flu by eating contaminated poultry. In fact, live viruses have been found in various meats, even after they were frozen, according to experts who briefed the National Restaurant Association on the matter. And government officials have cited a need to cook the birds to at least 180 degrees, or above the 145 degrees specified by many food codes. Both of those authorities have said the flu could be a food-safety issue, and requires extra vigilance in food handling.

Will bird flu be a mega-business issue? We’ll have to see. Hopefully, it’ll be 1995 all over again.

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