"There is no epidemiological evidence to date that avian influenza can be transmitted to humans through consumption of food, notably poultry and eggs," the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded in its report, issued today.
The march of avian influenza across Europe has heightened the public's fears over the safety of the bloc's poultry. Poultry consumption has plunged in many EU member states, by up to 70 per cent in some countries. Scientists are worried that the H5N1 form of the virus, which can be transmitted from poultry to humans, may mutate so that it can be transmitted from human to human and start a influenza pandemic.
About 100 people have died from the disease so far worldwide, including four in Turkey and three in Azerbaijan.
Direct transfer of H5N1 to humans occurs rarely and particularly after very close contact with infected animals. The exact method of infection from animals to humans is currently not known but it is generally accepted that respiratory tissues are the entry sites. Some have raised the possibility of virus entry via the gastrointestinal tract after ingestion with food.
"So far, there is no proof that virus replicates in the human intestine," the EFSA scientists stated. "... Foodborne virus might be a source of infection after ingestion but with virus uptake taking place via oropharyngeal (throat) tissues, if this site can serve as portal of entry. The existence of an undisclosed virus entry site in the intestinal tract can, however, not be ruled out at this time."
EFSA said it had prepared the report due to the presence of H5N1 avian influenza in the EU and the heightened public concern over the safety of poultry products and eggs. Companies can then be able to use the finding to assure wary consumers that their products are safe to eat when properly cooked.
The background document examines the state-of-science on all highly pathogenic avian influenza (AI) viruses, including H5N1, and the possible transfer t humans and other mammals via the food chain.
Edible tissues from infected animals, if collected within two to five days after contact with virus has taken place, may contain high virus quantities, the document stated.
"EFSA and other organisations such as the WHO generally support longstanding food safety advice that chicken and eggs be properly cooked in order to protect consumers from possible risks of food poisoning," the document staed. "Thoroughly cooking poultry meat and eggs also eliminates viruses, thereby providing further safety assurance in the unlikely event that H5N1 virus be present in raw poultry products entering the food chain."
The report also noted that scientists do not know why the H5N1 virus causes infection in some humans and not in others. More research is required, including studies on whether the virus can cause infection through the intestinal tract.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reported that recent avian influenza outbreaks in Europe, the Middle East and Africa have caused dramatic swings in poultry consumption, increased trade bans and sharp price declines. The UN agency expects poultry consumption shocks this year in many countries.
"A steady erosion of previously expected gains in per caput poultry consumption will likely push down global poultry consumption in 2006, currently estimated at 81.8 million tonnes, nearly three million tonnes lower than the previous 2006 estimate of 84.6 million tonnes," stated FAO commodity specialist Nancy Morgan.
According to the FAO report consumption shocks are ranging from a dramatic 70 per cent decline in Italy in mid-February to 20 per cent in France and 10 per cent in northern Europe.
These responses are similar to the European situation in late 2005 when widespread consumer concerns about bird flu outbreaks contributed to an annual one percent consumption drop in 15 countries in the EU.
In Africa, consumers in affected countries, such as Egypt and Nigeria, are moving away from poultry and egg products as are consumers in surrounding non-affected countries. In India reports of consumption drops of 25 per cent have caused domestic prices to fall 12 to 13 per cent.
Sharply reduced international poultry prices are raising uncertainty among exporters about trade prospects in 2006, the FAO stated.
"As consumers look for alternatives to poultry, global trade prospects will likely erode from the 10 per cent gains witnessed in 2005," the organisation stated.
In the US, export prices for broiler cuts, after rising to record levels in October, dropped 13 per cent as a result of declining shipments to Eastern Europe and Central Asia in November and December.
In Brazil, where exports account for approximately 30 per cent of total poultry output, the price of day-old chicks, an early warning indicator of potential production changes, is down sharply. Brazil and the US supply about 70 per cent of global poultry trade.
The largest poultry producers and exporters are the United States, Brazil and the EU.
The crisis has also affected the $42 billion dollar feed sector in Europe, with demand losses estimated at up to 40 per cent in some countries, the FAO stated.
Around 200 million chickens have been culled or have died of the disease worldwide since the onset of the crisis in late 2003.