Wednesday, January 8, 2014


For the last few days, the news in North America has been full of "swine flu" (H1N1v virus) reports, and even one about "bird flu" (H5N1 virus). My friends are asking me: “Can you catch these kinds of influenza from your food?”

Before I address this issue, let me say that I am glad I at least briefly covered both these topics (as well as “mad cow disease”) in The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Smart Choices about Risky Food.” (For those of you who have bought the book: see the chapter on Meat and Poultry, pp.155-158). I had a nasty feeling that these weird kinds of flu might come back to haunt us. And, they have.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about half of the United States is reporting widespread influenza outbreaks, most of it apparently caused by the H1N1v virus – also called “swine flu” although it is really a variant of one that is common in pigs. Remember the worldwide pandemic in 2009-1010? The odd thing about this virus then was that it tended to attack younger people. We don’t know if it will the same this season.

As for "bird flu" – it has now arrived in a human in North America. Canada has reported its first death from "bird flu." But the victim had clearly caught it in China, and in fact became ill on the way back home. Before this most of the confirmed 648 cases (bound to be just a fraction of the actual ones) as well as the 384 or so deaths, have been in Asia.

So – to the main question: can you get either "bird" or "swine flu" from your food? The answer isn’t all that simple. Yes, you can catch "bird flu" from handling infected birds – including when you are preparing to cook them. Usually, chickens, turkeys or ducks have been involved. And as far as we know at present, it is not present in birds in North America - yet We are still not sure if you can catch it from eating infected poultry. As for "swine flu" – as the book says, as far as we know at present (things could change), you can’t get it from eating pork, particularly well-cooked pork. But it is possible that someone preparing your food (for instance, when eating out at a restaurant), could sneeze or cough on your slice of tomato or lettuce leaf, or otherwise land the virus in your meal.

There is still a great deal we don’t know about both these scary types if influenza, or, how they could change in the future.

By the way, in the meantime, don’t hug a pig. And if you are travelling in Asia, I would also suggest you don’t get too close to wild birds – or leopards and tigers which now sometimes also carry bird flu.

To your good health,


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