Food safety issues
The H5N1 avian influenza virus is not transmitted to humans through properly cooked food. The virus is sensitive to heat. Normal temperatures used for cooking (so that food reaches 70oC in all parts) will kill the virus. To date, no evidence indicates that any person has become infected with the H5N1 virus following the consumption of properly cooked poultry or poultry products, even in cases where the food item contained the virus prior to cooking. Poultry and poultry products from areas free of the disease can be prepared and consumed as usual, with no fear of acquiring infection with the H5N1 virus. As a standard precaution, WHO recommends that poultry and poultry products should always be prepared following good hygienic practices, and that poultry meat should be properly cooked. This recommendation protects consumers from some well-known and common foodborne diseases that may be transmitted via inadequately cooked poultry.
Most strains of avian influenza virus are found only in the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts of infected birds, and not in meat. Available studies indicate that highly pathogenic viruses, including the H5N1 virus, spread to virtually all parts of an infected bird, including meat. For this reason, proper handling of poultry and poultry products during food preparation and proper cooking are extremely important in areas experiencing outbreaks of H5N1 avian influenza in poultry.
Consumers in areas with outbreaks need to be aware of the risks of cross-contamination between raw poultry and other foods that will not be cooked prior to their consumption. Juices from raw poultry or poultry products should never be allowed, during food preparation, to touch or mix with items eaten raw. When handling raw poultry or raw poultry products, persons involved in food preparation should wash their hands thoroughly and clean and disinfect surfaces in contact with the poultry products. Soap and hot water are sufficient for this purpose.
In countries with outbreaks, thorough cooking is imperative. Consumers need to be sure that all parts of the poultry are fully cooked (no “pink” parts) and that eggs, too, are properly cooked (no “runny” yolkes).
The H5N1 virus can survive for at least one month at low temperatures. For this reason, common food preservation measures, such as freezing and refrigeration, will not substantially reduce the concentration of virus in contaminated meat or kill the virus. In countries with outbreaks, poultry stored under refrigeration or frozen should be handled and prepared with the same precautions as fresh products.
In countries with outbreaks, eggs may contain virus both on the outside (shell) and inside (white and yolk). Eggs from areas with outbreaks should not be consumed raw or partially cooked. Raw eggs should not be used in foods that will not be treated by heat high enough to kill the virus (70oC).
To date, a large number of human infections with the H5N1 virus have been linked to the home slaughter and subsequent handling of diseased or dead birds prior to cooking. These practices represent the highest risk of human infection and are the most important to avoid. Proper handling and cooking of poultry and poultry products can further lower the risk of human infections.