There's been a lot of hand wringing about bird flu lately. The outbreak in Asia has many people in this country convinced a nasty flu pandemic is on its way and we are doomed.
I have interviewed many doctors and disaster preparedness experts who say, yes indeed, it could happen soon and we as a nation are ill-prepared. We have a vaccine that seems to work, but it's not yet approved and we don't have the capacity to mass-produce it.
The health care system is hanging on by a thread as it is, so any kind of widespread illness would be a disaster. Our under-staffed, under-funded hospitals would simply be overwhelmed. And we, as a freedom-loving people, will probably not take too kindly to quarantines.
So all of these doom and gloom scenarios got me thinking about chickens. Since bird flu is carried by birds, are the nation's chickens safe?
To find out we decided to travel to the heart of chicken country: Arkansas. Along with Georgia, Arkansas is one of the biggest chicken producing states in the country. It's a $3.2 billion business here and, with the threat of a lethal virus hanging over their heads, the chicken farmers of Arkansas aren't messing around.
Getting a glimpse of a commercial chicken farm is no easy feat. Being a city girl who's watched too many movies, I guess I was imagining a laid back scene from "Oklahoma" or "The Wizard of Oz" where there's a big red barn in the background and a yard full of chickens scurrying about.
Boy, was I wrong. I learned that raising chickens is all about protecting them from disease. And the poultry industry did not seem at all interested in any national media attention and germ-laden visitors from New York City. But after a little massaging by my producer, Kevin Finnegan, they came around — with conditions.
First of all, we would not be allowed to know where we were going. The farm would be "somewhere outside Little Rock" and that was all we would know. To get there we would meet our escort, Morril Harriman, executive vice president of the Poultry Federation, and he would take us there. And we would not be allowed to know which of the big chicken producers owned the birds we saw.
About a mile away from the farm, we followed Harriman into the parking lot of a gas station.
"He must need gas," we naively thought. Instead we were greeted by two big guys who interrogated us about any foreign travel in the last 72 hours, specifically travel to Asia, any exposure to other birds such as parakeets or ducks, and any illnesses we might have been exposed to.
It turns out employees of poultry farms have to sign contracts saying they will not go duck hunting or own pet birds and, if they do travel, they have to quarantine themselves until the threat of spreading any disease is past. Chicken farmers from China were NOT going to be visiting this farm.
We passed that test and moved on to the farm. No red barns here. Instead we were greeted by four long, white completely non-descript buildings. No signs. No cheerful Purdue logos. No nothing. Before entering one of them I had to suit up: plastic booties, a cover-all and a hair net. Then I had to wash my hands with alcohol and dip my feet in iodine. Then I was in.
Once inside, I was impressed. There was an overwhelming stench, but if you could get past that the place actually seemed immaculate. Thousands of tiny, fuzzy yellow balls milled around peeping and chirping, completely unaware of their purpose in life, or so it seemed. It was clear there would be little chance of a bird flu outbreak in here.
Harriman told me that while the fear of bird flu might be new to the American public, chicken farmers have been aware of it and watching for it for years. The current outbreak in Asia and parts of Europe has them in a state of heightened alert, but "keeping disease out of our poultry flocks is one of our major concerns," said Harriman.
The birds are under constant surveillance and are being tested regularly for any signs of a problem. Hundreds of thousands of samples go to state labs every day.
Unlike the human health care system, which is only now starting to devise a strategy to fight a potential bird flu pandemic, the poultry industry has plans firmly in place. There's an actual manual on what to do, Harriman said. Although it could mean economic disaster if infected birds ever get near any commercial poultry plant, rest assured, the birds get destroyed.
I left that chicken farm in the middle of Arkansas feeling a little bit better about the situation. The most unnerving reality about bird flu is the long list of unknowns.
We don't know if, when or how badly it will affect human beings. So I took some comfort in knowing that at least American chickens are as safe as they can be.