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'Merchant of Drumsticks' Aims To Allay Chicken-Flu Fears
posted by admin on 04/05/06

"Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America"

When Richard L. Lobb heard that Walt Disney Co.'s ABC television was planning a disaster thriller, "Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America," for next week's "sweeps week," he went into crisis mode..

Richard A. Lobb of the National Chicken Council, with some of his constituents.

Mr. Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, which represents nearly all of the chicken producers and processors in the U.S., wrote to the network demanding that it change the word "bird" to "pandemic" in the title. He also insisted that the movie, to be aired Tuesday, carry disclaimers such as "This movie is fiction" and "Eating poultry is safe." Finally, he posted a video on his trade group's Web site featuring healthy-looking farm chickens and developed talking points stressing that the avian flu can't be contracted by eating fully cooked chickens.

"The virus has been in the wild since 1997, and it has not become a human pandemic virus," says Mr. Lobb. "We will not go unchallenged. We hope ABC is carrying out its own responsibilities."

Hope Hartman, a spokeswoman for ABC television, says the network has acted "very responsibly." Even before Mr. Lobb's letter, she says, ABC decided to show messages at the beginning of the movie saying it was fiction and at the end directing viewers to a government Web site on pandemic flu. But there are no plans to change the title, as Mr. Lobb would like, and "there are not any discussions about chickens" in the movie, Ms. Hartman says.

With all the talk of avian flu, 53-year-old Mr. Lobb is the ultimate anti-Chicken Little. His job is to convince the public that the sky isn't falling, despite scary TV movies, disturbing media reports and government warnings that the flu is headed to the U.S. (In the movie, what Ms. Hartman calls "a reasonable worst-case scenario," the deadly H5N1 virus arrives on U.S. soil with a Virginia businessman who contracted the strain from a live poultry market in Hong Kong.)

To counter the scary stories, Mr. Lobb pointedly calls the disease the "Asian bird flu," with the emphasis on Asian. He notes that the government is testing tens of thousands of wild birds to try to get an early warning of the virus's arrival in the U.S. And he says most producers are testing their chickens before sending them to market and have vowed to destroy any infected flocks. "People have the impression that all of a sudden, all the chickens all over the country will drop dead," he says. "That won't happen. ... There's nothing to be scared of."

Mr. Lobb has been talking up chickens for years. In 1998, he was hired by the National Broiler Council, which a year later changed its name to the National Chicken Council. Before that, he handled the council's account while at the public-relations firm Fleishman-Hillard Inc., where he also represented such industries as plastics, home building and coal mining.

"I have been very fortunate in my public-relations career -- I never had to defend the indefensible," says Mr. Lobb, whose office is decorated with stuffed-chicken animals, a Frank Perdue bobblehead doll and a hen that lays bubblegum eggs.

"I can truthfully say I ate a lot of chicken before I started working for this industry," says Mr. Lobb. He jokingly calls himself the "merchant of drumsticks," a reference to the "merchant of death" label used by the tobacco lobbyist in the satirical novel and film "Thank You for Smoking."

Over the years, Mr. Lobb has learned to develop quick responses to questions about chickens, from the presence of salmonella in raw poultry (a natural phenomenon, he says) to the environmental impact of chicken farms (the industry now uses wood chips to absorb bird droppings and has worked with the government to curb pollution, he says) to allegations from groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that raising chickens with chemicals in tight quarters amounts to animal abuse ("It's not a scientific organization, just a pressure group," says Mr. Lobb. "We are not going to let them make decisions for us.")

PETA Vice President Bruce Friedrich, who has debated Mr. Lobb on television, says that if avian flu arrives in the U.S., "I hope and assume consumers will stop eating chicken by the millions."

The avian-flu threat poses Mr. Lobb's biggest challenge so far. For the U.S. chicken industry, with about $38 billion in annual retail sales, maintaining public confidence is crucial. Last year, the average U.S. consumer gobbled down nearly 90 pounds of chicken, compared with less than 24 pounds in 1960. In a recent survey of 1,043 adults by the Harvard School of Public Health, 46% of chicken eaters said they would stop eating chicken and 25% said they would eat less if avian flu shows up in the U.S.
Chickens on the Lohr farm in Broadway, Va.; they have no contact with wild birds.

World-wide, the virus has killed more than 110 people, most of whom came into close contact with poultry. For now, the disease doesn't seem to have the ability to be easily passed from one human to another. But if it mutates and triggers a pandemic -- the premise of the ABC movie -- the government says it could kill as many as two million Americans.

To ease public anxiety, Mr. Lobb and his helpers in the industry scour the media for more-upbeat reports. He recently circulated comments by Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who said that "it is impossible to predict" whether the bird-flu virus will trigger a pandemic. Mr. Lobb also called attention to comments by Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns who noted that the industry has taken extra steps to protect chickens and that cooking the birds at 165 degrees kills the virus.

To show off the plumped-up "bio-security" steps taken by many producers, Mr. Lobb recently conducted a tour of the Valley Pike Farm in Broadway, Va., an independent family farm under contract with Pilgrim's Pride Corp. to produce 600,000 chickens a year.

Before entering an enclosed chicken house containing 25,000 birds, Mr. Lobb and his entourage donned cotton overalls, gloves and hairnets and disinfected their rubber boots. The chickens rested in the dimly lighted wooden enclosure heated by gas to a temperature of 92 degrees. Except for a door, there are no openings to the outside and air circulation is helped by a fan. "There's no chance a wild bird will get into this house," says Matt Lohr, who owns the farm with his father, Gary. "Chicken is safe to eat."

Which, of course, is exactly the message Mr. Lobb, who refers to bird flu as "AI" -- for avian influenza -- is pushing. As for the ABC movie, he's not planning on watching; instead, he'll be attending a Boy Scouts meeting. He hopes TV watchers will be lured by a competing show. "The other AI ["American Idol"] may come in handy," he says.

Write to Jane Zhang at Jane.Zhang@wsj.com

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