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Bird-Flu Test For Poultry Meat Nears Readiness
posted by admin on 10/05/06

Major poultry companies promised to allow the government to do the testing

WASHINGTON -- A new test, just weeks from final readiness, will allow the government for the first time to test poultry meat for the deadly Asian H5N1 strain of bird flu, an added assurance for consumers that may be worried about eating chicken if the disease is found in the U.S.

Richard Raymond, the top food safety official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said in an interview that major poultry companies have all promised to allow the government to do the testing if it is needed.

If there is an outbreak of H5N1 in a commercial poultry flock, Mr. Raymond said, the USDA will want to test the meat recently produced from birds raised where the infection occurred.

The USDA has "a plan with industry where they will voluntarily hold that product and we will test it," he said.

Mr. Raymond said he has spoken with representatives of the National Chicken Council, the National Turkey Federation and major companies such as Tyson Foods Inc., Perdue Farms Inc., and Cargill Inc. about the plan.

"They all agree that the right thing to do is hold the product, test it so we can assure the American public that no infected product has entered the food chain," Mr. Raymond said.

Up until now, the USDA could only test birds for bird flu by examining secretions and body cavities, but USDA scientists are now in the final "validating" stage of readying the meat test, which was developed just this year.

Even without the test, though, Mr. Raymond said the possibility of bird-flu virus showing up in poultry meat is "infinitesimal." And in that unlikely event, he said, cooking poultry to 165 degrees Fahrenheit will kill the virus.

H5N1 hasn't been discovered in the U.S., but the government is preparing for the likelihood that it will be. In the meantime, the USDA is urging the media to carry the message that poultry is safe to eat and will continue to be safe even if the virus is found in U.S. flocks.

The USDA released several audio and video public service announcements last week that it hopes radio and television broadcasters will use. One audio file, available on the USDA's Web site, portrays a conversation in which a couple considering chicken for dinner discuss concerns over bird flu.

The H5N1 virus has spread through Asia, Europe and Africa and killed 114 people so far, although U.S. government officials maintain that it can't yet be passed easily between humans.

The inability of the virus to transmit easily between humans is the one thing that is preventing a pandemic, according to a November statement by federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Julie Gerberding before a Senate committee.

Write to Bill Tomson at bill.tomson@osterdowjones.com

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