Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Chicken: the New Frontier

If you want to conquer the New Frontier and participate at the highest levels, I have just one word for you: chicken.
Jan Fields, president of McDonald's U.S. central division, described chicken as "the new frontier" while addressing a group of J. P. Morgan Chase & Co. analysts in Las Vegas last month. "The reality is, chicken consumption is up 38% over the last five years, and we have to participate at the highest levels in this category," she told the analysts. (Chicago Business)
And if you want to worry about something that's going to threaten your New Frontier and drop your participation down a notch or two, I have just two more words for you: bird flu.

They're worried at McDonald's, where the chicken club sandwich is about the priciest thing on the menu and where they are heavily invested in dead bird meat.
The chain has recently added white meat chicken nuggets, larger fried chicken pieces called "chicken selects," premium salads that can be topped with chicken and premium chicken sandwiches. McDonald's will introduce a new Asian chicken salad later this month and is testing new equipment in Atlanta that can pressure-cook chicken to seal in flavor.
Asian chicken salad. They might want to rethink that one.

Already chicken consumption is down, worldwide, as consumers elsewhere start worrying about the health consequences of bird flu. McDs, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Chick-fil-A, Popeyes and probably other chicken heavy fast food chains are assembling avian flu task forces to figure out contingency plans. No one is saying what their contingency plans are, but one part is certainly to convince people that if the bird is properly cooked you can't get bird flu from it, even if it is infected to start with. Which they don't expect:
Some experts say a bird-flu outbreak in the U.S. is inevitable because of the migratory patterns of infected bird populations. "Within the next six months, we'll have infected birds in the U.S.," says Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

But it's unlikely that chicken sold in U.S. grocery stores and restaurants would come into contact with migrating birds, since most poultry sold in the U.S. is raised in isolation.

"McDonald's chicken products are absolutely safe to eat," a company spokesman says in a statement. "Our chicken products are cooked at temperatures well beyond guidelines recommended by the World Health Organization and USDA."
That's the story, anyway. (1) It's unlikely US chickens would come in contact with migratory birds because they are raised in isolation. Yes, pretty much true, although free range chickens are a small but growing part of the market. More importantly, however, this assumes the only way avian influenza can get to the huge buildings with tens of thousands of chicks crammed together, many to a cage, is via migratory birds. We don't even know if migratory birds are a significant source of transmission, although they probably are. But many other sources probably exist as well, including the virus coming into a flock via feed, brought in on vehicles, clothes or shoes or some other way. The outbreaks in cloistered flocks in France and Israel are still under investigation. (2) McDs chicken products are absolutely safe to eat because they are cooked through. Yes, that's true, too. But the big food safety problem has always been mixing raw and cooked. This can happen on cutting boards, via hands or a variety of other ways. And those who cook the meat handle it raw. That said, the bottom line is probably correct. The risk is probably small from this source.

But that isn't going to stop people from worrying about it. And ironically the line that this virus is really bad for birds but people only get it in close contact with poultry isn't going to prevent fear of chicken. It will promote it. So I personally wouldn't invest in a chicken business at this point. Too risky. As a business venture, that is.

Regarding public health, however, the investment message is clear. If there is going to be a pandemic it isn't going to start at McDonald's. You'll get it from another person. That means we need to repair and rebuild our broken public health system. Not just the infectious disease part of it. The whole system is interconnected and functions togethre. We have to rebuild all of it: Maternal and Child Health, Substance Abuse, Nutrition Services, Vital Statistics, and the rest. And we have to simultaneously repair all the rips in the social safety net. In a pandemic it won't be just the poor who will be falling through with a sickening thud (that's bad enough). It will also be your eighty year old mother in the third floor walkup who is isolated and abandoned when you are sick and unable to help her; it will be the pregnant woman, lying deathly ill with the flu but isn't helped because she has no prenatal care; it will be the diabetic who can't get his insulin because the supply chains are unstable. We epidemiologists won't have the working surveillance system to tell us when the virus is hitting our community and when it stops hitting it. Doctors still have to go on treating run of the mill heart disease, asthma, autoaccidents and all the rest in a health system unable to care for just one disease, influenza.

So forget about fixing McDonald's. They'll get along just fine. It's the rest of us that need a contingency plan. And the investment. When it comes to epidemic infectious disease, none of us are safe, until we're all safe.