Avian influenza — are humans at risk?

Avian influenza is not a food safety risk when poultry and eggs are handled and cooked properly.

Various poultry at a farm.
Photo: Unsplash/Luke Syres.

With highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) arriving in Michigan, Michigan State University Extension experts have assembled resources and information to help answer frequently asked questions that poultry owners, 4-H families, and consumers may have about avian influenza.

The avian influenza A virus, also referred to as avian flu or bird flu, is a virus that occurs naturally among wild aquatic birds throughout the world. This group of birds includes geese and ducks. It can also infect domestic poultry such as chickens and turkeys, as well as other birds and animals. The virus can be deadly for domestic poultry and, if infected, whole flocks can be wiped out. This raises the question for many people: “If avian influenza can infect domestic poultry, can it be transmitted to humans?”

There are some rare cases where humans have become infected with avian influenza A after handling infected birds. In order to prevent avian influenza A viruses in people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests taking some protective actions around birds:

  • As a general precaution, people should avoid wild birds and observe them only from a distance.
  • Avoid contact with birds, including poultry, that appear ill or have died.
  • Avoid contact with surfaces that appear to be contaminated with feces from wild or domestic birds.

Additionally, according to the CDC, the spread of the influenza A virus between humans is extremely rare, and the CDC asserts that when person-to-person transmission has occurred, it has been “limited, inefficient and not sustained.” The primary way to avoid contracting the disease, is to avoid close contact with infected birds and their droppings.

When avian influenza is detected in the United States, the chance of infected poultry or eggs entering our food system is extremely low. One of the main reasons is that once birds are infected with the virus, they die quickly and are removed from the food chain. There are safeguards in place for inspecting and handling flocks that have or are suspected of having avian influenza. The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service monitors avian influenza throughout the United States and the USDA keeps track of outbreaks and regular updates are posted on their website.

The CDC states “it is safe to eat properly handled and cooked poultry.” For the proper handling and cooking of poultry and eggs, Michigan State University Extension and the USDA recommend:

  • Washing your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food.
  • Cooking chicken and poultry to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit as measured by a food thermometer.
  • Never thawing frozen chicken at room temperature. Instead, thaw the meat in the refrigerator, the microwave, or a cold-water bath. For instructions on how to thaw poultry safely, refer to the Michigan State University Extension bulletin How to Safely Handle Raw Poultry and Tips for Cutting Up a Whole Bird.
  • Keeping eggs refrigerated at 40 degrees or lower and do not keep raw eggs out of the refrigerator for more than two hours.
  • Cooking egg-containing dishes to 160 degrees. Eggs that are scrambled, fried, poached, boiled or baked should be cooked until the yolk and white are firm.
  • Cleaning your cutting boards, dishes, utensils and countertops with hot soapy water after preparing each food item.

Consumers can rest assured that in following these tips, they can safely consume poultry and eggs. For answers to your food safety questions, call MSU Extension's Food Safety Hotline at 1-877-643-9882. For more information on food safety, visit MSU Extension's Safe Food & Water website.

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