Dr. Michael Greger, for those that don’t know, is the author of the book “Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching”. He’s also Director of Public Health and Agriculture at The Humane Society Of The United States. That’s prettty impressive!
We’re interviewing him now on this site with reference to Bird Flu, his new book, and the impact Bird Flu could have on the world. Importantly (since we’re a foodblog!), we’re also interested in how this will affect our poultry buying and usage.
I feel honoured that Dr. Greger has spared a few moments out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for RealEpicurean.com.
1. Dr. Greger, firstly can I ask how you came to be involved in this particular project – in particular, what were the triggers that led you into writing this book?
I did my postgraduate medical work at a Boston public health hospital filled with victims of AIDS. When I was growing up, in fact when most of us were growing up, there was no such thing as AIDS, and now, 25 million people are dead. I began thinking to myself, where did this virus come from? In light of the threat of H5N1, I wrote Bird Flu to try to answer that question. From where do emerging diseases emerge?
2. You mention in your book that the H5N1 Bird Flu strain has around a 50% mortality rate within humans. Bearing this in mind, but offsetting it against the advice that “cooking destroys virtually all bacteria” in infected meat, would you call it an over-reaction that many people are now choosing to boycott poultry products?
The 50% mortality rate has risen-in 2006 the case mortality rate hit 70%. Absolutely tragic. But the concern is not that we’re going to get it from eating poorly handled or improperly cooked poultry; the concern is that the bird virus will mutate into a form easily transmissible from one person to the next thereby triggering the next pandemic. If that happens. If that happens then it doesn’t matter what one eats-you’d get pandemic flu just like you’d get the seasonal flu, from people not poultry. So while in one sense it doesn’t matter what we eat, in another sense, that’s all that matters. By demanding cheap meat, our choices at the supermarket have led to the growth of these intensive confinement systems, but at what cost in the end?
3. I personally believe that food should be kept as pure and simple as possible, and this seems to be a view that modern science can go in the opposite direction of (bearing in mind GM foods, for example). Do you think there will ever be a reversal in our current movements towards “efficient” production, or is it too late? What can the “average” person do about it?
As we approach the centennial of Rachel Carson’s birth (April 20, 2007) I am reminded of a quote from the introduction of the influential book Animal Factories: “The modern world worships the gods of speed and quantity, and of the quick and easy profit, and out of this idolatry monstrous evils have arisen.” In this case, the monstrous evil may be the deadly mutant strain H5N1, which may trigger a pandemic which kills millions of people around the world. In addition to pushing our elected representatives for better regulation of animal agribusiness, we as consumers can decide to vote with our wallets and not support this industrial model.
4. It is difficult in this age of television and media to analyse exactly what is sensationalism / over-reaction, against what is a real and justified panic. My question is this: Without panic, will “the industry” still make the required changes? Are our health related scientific bodies sufficiently independent, and sufficiently powerful enough to “take care” of the situation?
We should have no illusions that significant change will happen until after a crisis hits. Part of human psychology it seems is to not shore up the levies until after the disaster. In a post-pandemic world, though, we as a species may have to rethink how we make out food.
5. One of the biggest fears, at least from a media perspective, is that the virus could “mutate” into a form that can spread from human to human. Historically, how likely is this? Is it simply a media sensation, or a real and probable possibility?
We don’t know enough about the biology of these viruses to be able to predict if H5N1 even has the capacity to “go human.” We don’t know when the next flu pandemic will strike, or how bad it will be, but with the unprecedented spread of a truly unprecedented virus in terms of human lethality, it is prudent for the world public health leaders to be concerned.
6. As a result of the recent Bernard Matthews bird flu scare in England, what changes could you recommend to help stem the spread of the virus? In an ideal situation, what would be the new direction taken by poultry farming?
The global industrial poultry industry must reverse course away from greater intensification. These so-called “factory farms” may be a global public health menace.
7. One of the views recently put to me was that far from factory (intensive) farming being an issue amplifying the spread of bird flu, it in fact helps contain it (a view with at least some merit, when we consider virus containment). Coupled with a risk that the virus could mutate and spread to other animal species, what is your view on this?
Look at Bernard Matthews-they claimed to have the best biosecurity in the country, yet the virus found its way into multiple sheds on the property. Yes, they were able to quickly quash the disease by gassing the 159,000 birds, but now that we know that the virus can escape and infect wild birds, making eradication essentially impossible, we have to shift focus from containment to preventing the emergence of these highly pathogenic avian flu viruses in the first place. All bird flu viruses start out harmless. Every documented transformation of a harmless bird flu virus into a highly pathogenic strain has happened in these confined, stressful, crowded conditions for reasons I elaborate on in my book, available free full-text online at birdflubook.org.