Shoppers' fears could impact poultry prices

Before bird flu ever reaches a status that would cause major public health problems, its first impact might be on residents' pocketbooks.

New Mexico State University agriculture economics professor Terry Crawford said consumers could react in different ways to news that bird flu has reached the United States. They could shy away from buying chicken, causing prices to drop, he said. Or, they could start a buying frenzy in anticipation that poultry will be hard to buy later on, which would cause prices to rise.

Crawford said the latter scenario is more likely, considering people view the H5N1 strain of bird flu as being fairly dangerous.

"If you look at what's happening in Europe, consumers have cut back on their purchases ... , so that has the impact of lowering prices," he said.

Crawford also predicted shoppers might switch to other meats, as they did when mad cow disease was prominent in the news.

Americans buy 26 billion pounds of chicken annually, roughly 87 pounds per U.S. resident, according to the National Chicken Council.

Bird flu hasn't yet reached the United States, but health officials are expecting wild birds to carry it in sometime this year.

Can I still eat chicken?

Several Web sites about bird flu, including the National Chicken Council site, reassure consumers that proper cooking of chicken and thorough handwashing after handling meat eliminates chances of catching the virus, even if poultry is contaminated.

Will Doña Ana County residents change their grocery list if bird flu reaches the area? Some said they would, while others said they'd continue buying chicken or turkey.

Angela Legarreta of Doña Ana said she doesn't buy much poultry, but she likely wouldn't change her shopping patterns.

"I'm not worried about it," she said.

Legarreta owns about six chickens, ducks and geese and said she has received a notice from the federal government alerting her that inspectors might check her birds for avian flu.

Susan Bako of Las Cruces said she's a vegetarian, but she does buy chicken for her son.

"I'd be hesitant of letting him eat it until the government had (bird flu) under control," she said.

Ted Hannah, 77, of Las Cruces said he, too, likely would curtail his poultry buying.

Las Crucen Pam Marshall said she'd try not to overreact if bird flu does arrive in the country.

"I'd be more concerned about the virus in wild bird populations than in packaged meat," she said.

Past experience

Crawford said different strains of bird flu entered the country in the early '80s, but they weren't as dangerous as the H5N1 virus. Instead of avoiding poultry, he said, consumers went on a buying spree because they feared a shortage.

"In that case the consumers actually bid up the price," he said.

Crawford said several characteristics of the U.S. poultry industry improve its chances of avoiding bird flu. For example, he said, most poultry operations are indoors, so domestic birds have little opportunity to come into contact with wild birds carrying the disease.

Because of this, Crawford said, if bird flu arrives, it likely wouldn't kill many birds or force many to be euthanized. A larger impact to the industry will be consumers' reactions, he said.

Source:LC Sun News
calendar icon 24 March 2006
clock icon 1 minute read
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