Are KFC, eggs and dairy safe from the spread of bird flu in Australia?

Australia is the only continent free of a deadly new strain of avian influenza, but how would it respond if the virus breached our borders?

Left - A KFC no entry. Right - a Red Rooster store front inside a mall with two customers.
Could KFC and Red Rooster's supply be impacted if bird flu reached Australia? Source: AAP/Getty

Chicken, egg and dairy farms around the globe have been rocked by the spread of a highly pathogenic avian influenza. Remarkably Oceania (Australia and New Zealand) have yet to be hit by the new HPAI (H5N1) strain.

In the United Kingdom, the virus has impacted the supply of free range eggs for two years, and in the United States the price of a dozen eggs has risen 16 per cent since January as a result of a bird flu outbreak.

It's not just eggs that are affected, fast food staples loved by many Aussies have been impacted overseas. Last year KFC closed stores across the tiny nation of Lesotho after neighbouring South Africa was overrun with the virus.

And during an outbreak of avian flu in the early 2000s, some of KFC's outlets in Vietnam switched to serving fish instead of chicken, while in the US, the fast-food retailer put stickers on buckets to try and reassure customers its meat was safe.

  • Over 90 million farmed birds have been affected in the US

  • In 2022 100,000 wild birds in Peru died, 4,000 sea lions in Chile

  • Previous outbreaks in Australia have impacted poultry, but not wild birds

  • The US gov has spent over US$1 billion compensating farmers for losses

Since the most recent outbreak, millions of chickens have been slaughtered in the US to reduce the spread of infection. And for the first time, dairy cows were being struck down with the disease. Luckily the disease doesn't have high mortality rate in humans — infected farmers in Texas have only reported mild symptoms like conjunctivitis.

Store bought milk and yogurt have been assessed as probably safe if it's pasteurised. That's despite one in five dairy samples testing positive to the virus.

In Australia, the Department of Agriculture (DAFF) website states it remains "safe to eat" eggs, meat and poultry products when they are "properly cooked", but it warns freezing them would not kill the virus if it infected livestock here.

Related: Grave fears deadly bird flu to rip through millions of penguins

To understand the risk of HPAI in Australia, Yahoo News spoke with Professor Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases expert at Australian National University and Canberra Hospital.

When it comes to the potential impact of HPAI on Australia, his advice has remained largely unchanged over the last 15 months. “We can have some concern. But we do not need to panic or get unduly worried,” he said this week.

Over the last 20 years, around 900 people have become infected with the H5N1 strain of avian influenza and 460 have died. Although the virus devastated populations of other mammals including sea lions and minks, the human infection rate remains lower than some experts first feared.

“This virus has been floating around in one form or another since the 1990s and it hasn't caused the pandemic that everybody was worried about,” Collignon said.

Hypothesising, on what the next pandemic will be, he doesn’t think it will be H5N1. “We're more likely to end up with a problem with H11, or H13, or something that will hit us a bit like Covid.”

Previous outbreaks of less pathogenic strains of avian influenza in Australia's farms have not significantly disrupted grocery supplies. Collignon thinks there could be some impact if HPAI breaches our borders, but he adds, "We're not going to starve".

He believes it would mainly affect chickens, and he doubts cattle are at a high risk because unlike the United States, it's illegal to feed poultry litter such as faeces and spilled feed to cattle.

"I worry about the feeding practices in the US. What we don't want to do is be feeding, excreta of ducks or chickens to cows, particularly if they may have been sick," he said.

A supermarket milk display. Source: Getty (File)
Professor Collignon thinks it unlikely that Australian dairy will be impacted by the virus. Source: Getty (File)

Research and development corporation Dairy Australia’s industry analyst Eliza Redfern said because the outbreak in the US had been “fairly localised” there has been “minimal market disruption” to milk supply. “Based on this, there is not enough information to generalise and forecast potential implications to the broader global and Australian context,” she said.

Its veterinarian Dr Zoe Vogels thinks the likelihood of avian flu affecting cattle in Australia at the moment is “extremely low”.

“However, while the extent of HPAI in US dairy cattle is still being investigated it is thought to have crossed over from wild migratory birds through contamination of feed/water by dead birds or infective faeces, and so the outbreak provides a timely reminder for both farmers and the public to keep an eye on the health of their local wildlife, and to report anything unusual,” she said.

Australia's Department of Agriculture (DAFF) told Yahoo it believes dairy exported from the United States is safe for consumption.

“DAFF is confident in the effectiveness of controls the United States Department of Agriculture has in place to ensure that only milk sourced from healthy animals is used in the production of goods for human consumption for export to Australia,” it told Yahoo.

When it comes to the risk the virus could pose to Australia's chicken meat supply, specific details are harder to come by.

Yahoo News reached out to KFC’s publicist in Australia as well as Craveable Brands which owns Red Rooster and Chargrill Charlies and asked if they are confident they could continue to supply chicken if the virus was to be detected in Australia. Neither acknowledged repeated requests for comment.

Poultry Hub Australia which aims to foster effective communication between researchers and farmers is yet to respond to an interview request.

The Australian Chicken Meat Federation declined to be interviewed and instead issued a short statement attributable to its CEO Dr Mary Wu stating the country has “well practised” and “nationally agreed procedures” in responding to avian flu.

"The Australian chicken meat industry remains highly vigilant to the risk of HPAI incursion, and has extensively and proactively prepared for many years in strong biosecurity and animal health management practices to protect the commercial flock," she said.

A girl eating chicken. Source: Getty (File)
Australia's supply of chicken meat has not been dramatically impacted by other strains of the virus. Source: Getty (File)

Should an Australian farmer suspect avian flu has infected their livestock, they are required to lock their gates and notify government. Vets would then assess the animals and if they test positive this would result in the the slaughter of at-risk and sick animals, and increased biosecurity restrictions around farms.

DAFF told Yahoo last week it was “closely monitoring” outbreaks overseas and that the US government is supplying it with updates of what’s believed to be the “first known detections of this type in cattle and goats”.

In a statement DAFF said it was coordinating "national activities" to improve HPAI awareness and preparedness.

There are nationally agreed cost-sharing arrangements in place to respond to disease outbreaks in the agriculture sector. And since 1997, Australia has successfully eradicated five outbreaks of avian influenza, although none were the H5N1 strain.

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