Many Americans confused about avian flu and food safety

Jun 12, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – A nationwide survey indicates that many Americans have misconceptions about food safety issues related to avian influenza, researchers from Rutgers University said yesterday.

Researchers from the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experimental Station, based in New Brunswick, N.J., conducted the survey to gauge the public's knowledge about H5N1 avian influenza and determine how Americans would respond if the virus were found in US poultry. The results were announced yesterday in a press release from Rutgers University.

The research team interviewed 1,200 adults by telephone between May 3 and Jun 5, 2006, according to the 32-page survey report. Investigators used random-digit dialing to select survey participants from all 50 states. They first asked a series of questions to gauge respondents' overall awareness of avian flu and how the disease spreads and is prevented. Then they asked what respondents would do if the threat of avian influenza increased, particularly regarding poultry buying and consumption.

Nearly all (93%) of the respondents had heard of avian influenza, yet more than half said they knew little about it. A 22-question objective test within the survey confirmed the respondents' view of their own avian flu knowledge: half scored less than 60%. Women, those with less education, and those with less objective knowledge about H5N1 were more likely to have misconceptions about the risks of eating poultry, the group found.

Most of the respondents said their risk of contracting H5N1 was low, but many believed the risk to others was higher, the survey revealed.

Only about two thirds of respondents were aware that most chicken sold in the United States is produced domestically, under tightly controlled conditions, and that poultry products from countries with H5N1 outbreaks are banned.

Though Americans seem to be aware of avian influenza, they are uncertain of food-related transmission risks, the researchers found. While more than two-thirds of the survey respondents believed that the avian flu virus is present in the uncooked meat of infected poultry, less than half understood that proper cooking kills the virus.

Further, when asked what they would do if the H5N1 virus turned up in US chickens, 40% of respondents said they would stop eating chicken products, rather than limiting their risk by using proper cooking and food handling procedures. The researchers said this result is consistent with findings among European consumers.

Among other misconceptions, many Americans believe it's easy to identify H5N1-contaminated raw meat, the researchers said.

Respondents said they would turn away from chicken products if a wild bird with the H5N1 virus was found in the United States or if poultry outbreaks were reported in Canada or Mexico.

William K. Hallman, director of the Food Policy Institute, said in the press release that the results point to specific communication needs. "The results of the study suggest that much of the American public does not yet have the information they need to make informed choices abut purchasing, preparing, and consuming poultry products, should avian influenza emerge in the United States," he said.

Though consumers' actual behavior often differs from what they predict it will be, the research group concluded that domestic poultry consumption would drop dramatically if avian flu emerged in the United States. "The resulting economic and social impacts would likely be substantial," they wrote.

Targeted messages to consumers should include information on the safety of the US poultry supply, food handling techniques to avoid cross-contamination, and properly cooking chicken to at least 165ºF, the researchers said.

See also:

Jun 11 Rutgers press release
http://ur.rutgers.edu/medrel/viewArticle.html?ArticleID=5834

Dec 7, 2005, CIDRAP News story "FAO, WHO give food safety tips for bird flu era"

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