To avoid contracting bird flu, an influenza expert at the UK Health Protection Agency warned, “Avoid being in touching distance [of birds who could be affected]. Don’t kiss chickens.”361
Kissing aside, what is the risk of putting our lips on them other ways?
Investigators suspect that at least five people living near Hanoi contracted H5N1 after dining on congealed duck blood pudding, a traditional Vietnamese dish called tiet canh vit
prepared from a duck’s blood, stomach, and intestines.362
This led the FAO to advise, “People should not eat raw blood.”363
But what about the muscle tissue we know as meat?
In 2001, the virus was found and confirmed in frozen Pekin duck meat exported from mainland China. The investigators concluded, “The isolation of an H5N1 influenza virus from duck meat and the presence of infectious virus in muscle tissue of experimentally infected ducks raises concern that meat produced by this species may serve as a vehicle for the transmission of H5N1 virus to humans.”364
Inexplicably, after meeting with the Chinese President in April 2006, President George W. Bush agreed to allow the resumption of poultry imports from China starting in May. Although the meat would be cooked before export, which should kill the virus, members of the U.S. House and Senate agriculture committees expressed concern about quality control in Chinese processing plants.365
Some critics suspect that this concession was made in return for China’s promise to drop the mad cow disease-related ban on U.S. beef imports.366
The finding of H5N1-contaminated poultry meat triggered a more extensive survey. Investigators randomly sampled duck meat from China and found that 13 of 14 imported lots all contained up to a thousand infectious doses of virus within the meat. The researchers concluded that “the isolation of H5N1 viruses from duck meat reveals a previously unrecognized source for human exposure to potential highly pathogenic viruses.”367
Top flu researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) looked into chicken. Chickens who inhaled H5N1 became infected even more systemically than did ducks.368
The virus spread through the internal organs, into the muscle tissue, and even out into the skin. Virus was found in both white and dark meat.369
There is a precedent for bird-borne virus-infected meat.370
Unlike bacteria, viruses can remain infective for prolonged periods even in processed foods. Some methods of preservation, like refrigeration, freezing, or salting, may even extend the persistence of viruses in food.371
On the other hand, since viruses cannot replicate without living tissue, improper storage of food is less problematic.372
When someone gets hepatitis from eating strawberries, it didn’t come from the strawberries—they don’t have livers. The virus came from human or nonhuman fecal material, the cause of nearly all foodborne illness. For the same reason that people don’t get Dutch Elm Disease or ever seem to come down with a really bad case of aphids, food products of animal origin are the source of most cases of food poisoning,373
with chicken the most common culprit.374
Poultry and eggs seem to cause more food poisoning cases than red meat, seafood, and dairy products combined.375
Due to viral contamination of meat in general, those who handle fresh meat for a living can come down with unpleasant conditions with names like contagious pustular dermatitis. Fresh meat is so laden with viruses that there is a well-defined medical condition colloquially known as “butcher’s warts,” affecting the hands of those who handle fresh poultry,376
and other meat.378
Even wives of butchers seem to be at higher risk of cervical cancer,379
a cancer definitively associated with wart virus exposure.380
Concerns about viral infection have led to recommendations that pregnant women and people with AIDS not work the slaughter lines.381
Proper cooking of the meat, though, utterly kills all known viruses.
Isolated viruses like influenza can be killed by exposure to 158°F for less than a minute in a laboratory setting.382
In the kitchen, however, it’s a little more complicated. While some authorities feel that one can just cook until the meat is no longer pink and the juices run clear, USDA bird flu guidelines insist on the use of a meat thermometer. USDA recommends cooking whole birds to 180°F as measured in the thigh, while an individual breast need only reach an internal 170°F. Drumsticks, thighs, and wings cooked separately should reach 180°F inside, but ground turkey and chicken need only be cooked to 165°F, though the minimum oven temperature to use when cooking poultry should never drop below 325°F. According to the USDA bird flu Q & A press release, details are available online.383
Because proper cooking methods kill the virus384
no matter how deadly it is, the standard government and industry line remains: “There is no risk of getting avian influenza from properly cooked poultry and eggs.”385
But that can be said about nearly all foodborne illnesses. The CDC estimates that 76 million Americans come down with food poisoning every year. Annually, an estimated 5,000 Americans die as a result of foodborne illness.386
And every single one of those millions of infections, every single one of those thousands of deaths, was caused by a virus or bacteria that should have been utterly destroyed by “proper” cooking. So why are tens of millions of Americans still falling ill?