Tuesday, March 28, 2006

"Tastes like chicken"

It is achieving the status of a mantra. The Wikipedia tells us mantras are constantly repeated poems or phrases "used as spiritual conduits, words or vibrations that instill one-pointed concentration in the devotee. Other purposes have included religious ceremonies to accumulate wealth, avoid danger, or eliminate enemies."

This is pretty abstract. It's always good to have an example:
With bird flu spreading to wild or domestic birds in 17 new countries since the beginning of last month, the United Nations health agency again stressed today that humans are not at risk of acquiring the deadly infection through food when poultry products are safely handled and properly cooked.

“The main health risk currently is to people who are in close contact with infected poultry, such as families with backyard flocks and poultry workers in wet markets or live animal markets,” the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a news release.

“Globally, the evidence demonstrates that there is no risk of infection when birds and eggs are well-cooked, as this kills the virus. Poultry products are important sources of protein throughout the world,” it added. (UN)
This mantra has the advantage of being literally true. Influenza virus is inactivated by heat high enough to "properly cook" food. And that's most cooking processes.

However. . . except in restaurants, the food doesn't come to you cooked, it comes to you raw. In order to cook it properly someone has to handle uncooked poultry and if it's infected that's a potential source of contagion. That's what the little phrase "safely handled" means in the mantra. Since proper cooking is much more common than safe handling, it can't be taken for granted this is sufficient guidance.

The real meaning of the mantra is in the little added after thought (" 'Poultry products are important sources of protein throughout the world,' it added."), which I believe is the real point of the statement. The fear of bird flu is sending poultry demand plummeting and with it an important source of protein. So this is a public health balancing act.

I sympathize with WHO's quandry. At the moment their rhetorical solution probably works and nets out positively. But if the time comes that the virus is more readily "catchable," they are going to have to send out a modified message, possibly that it's OK to eat properly cooked poultry but too dangerous to cook it. That will be another quandry.

But we're not there yet. For now, "It tastes like chicken" can still safely apply to the real thing. Say that over and over again.