Grocery industry prepares for bird flu
By TIMBERLY ROSS, Associated Press Writer
Mon Feb 19, 12:07 AM ET
OMAHA, Neb. - Stocking up on food is as simple as a trip to the grocery store, a veritable land of plenty for Americans. But will fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, bread, milk and other household staples still be available if the U.S. is hit with an anticipated bird flu pandemic? If state and federal officials urge people to stay away from public places, like restaurants and fast-food establishments, will they be able to get the groceries they need to prepare food in their homes? ADVERTISEMENT
Unlike other critical infrastructure sectors like water, energy and health care, the food industry isn't getting much help from state and federal governments when it comes to disaster planning. That puts the burden on individual supermarket chains and wholesalers to deal with a potentially large number of sick workers that could affect store operations and disrupt the food supply.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates a third of the population could fall ill if the H5N1 strain of the bird flu mutates into a form that spreads easily from person to person. It's not clear if that will ever happen and no human cases of bird flu have ever been traced to eating properly cooked poultry or eggs.
But if a pandemic emerges, the Department of Homeland Security projects worker absenteeism to reach 40 percent or more over a prolonged period. Hammonds said retail food stores would have to contend with worker shortages and disruptions in the supply chain.
The Food Marketing Institute's Hammonds said a widespread pandemic will likely cause food consumption to shift away from restaurants and fast-food establishments and toward in-home eating, causing a greater demand for groceries.
"That means stores would need to be prepared for an increase in volume," he said.
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