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Food Industry Plans for Bird Flu Attack

OMAHA, Neb. - Stocking up on food is as simple as a trip to the grocery store, a veritable land of plenty for Americans.

"It's so easy when you have three grocery stores in your vicinity," said Becky Jones of Omaha, who stocks up once a week for her family of three. "You think: how could you possibly not get what you needed?"

But will fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, bread, milk and other household staples still be available if the U.S. is hit with an anticipated bird flu pandemic? If state and federal officials urge people to stay away from public places, like restaurants and fast-food establishments, will they be able to get the groceries they need to prepare food in their homes?

For Jones, the prospect of not having access to food is frightening. She said most people, herself included, only have food on hand for three or four days.

Unlike other critical infrastructure sectors like water, energy and health care, the food industry isn't getting much help from state and federal governments when it comes to disaster planning. That puts the burden on individual supermarket chains and wholesalers to deal with a potentially large number of sick workers that could affect store operations and Advertisement disrupt the food supply.

"The industry is actively thinking through contingency plans, so if it should happen, our members would be well prepared to deal with it," said Tim Hammonds, president of the Food Marketing Institute, an advocate for grocery wholesalers and retail supermarkets nationwide.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates a third of the population could fall ill if the H5N1 strain of the bird flu mutates into a form that spreads easily from person to person. It's not clear if that will ever happen and no human cases of bird flu have ever been traced to eating properly cooked poultry or eggs.

But if a pandemic emerges, the Department of Homeland Security projects worker absenteeism to reach 40 percent or more over a prolonged period. Hammonds said retail food stores would have to contend with worker shortages and disruptions in the supply chain.

The food and agriculture industry is listed among 13 critical-infrastructure sectors that the Department of Homeland Security says must remain functional during a pandemic.

"Having those critical facilities open - like power, water, food - becomes very important" during a national disaster such as a pandemic, said Keith Hanson, an outreach coordinator for Nebraska's Center for Biopreparedness Education.

Hanson works with local businesses, helping test their preparedness plans. He will speak about the importance of that testing at the Public Health Preparedness Summit in Washington, an annual conference designed to help public health workers prepare for emergencies. This year's meeting started Friday and ends Feb. 23.

Hanson said continued operations of power and water utilities are of the utmost importance, but grocery stores rank highly too. That's because people today keep less food on hand, opting instead to make weekly trips to the grocery store.

Americans are also dining out more than they have in the past. Money spent on food prepared outside the home rose from 34 percent of total food costs in 1974 to about 50 percent in 2004, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Food Marketing Institute's Hammonds said a widespread pandemic will likely cause food consumption to shift away from restaurants and fast-food establishments and toward in-home eating, causing a greater demand for groceries.

"That means stores would need to be prepared for an increase in volume," he said.

Hy-Vee, a West Des Moines, Iowa-based supermarket chain that operates more than 200 stores in the Midwest, does not have a disaster plan developed in the event of avian flu. But company spokeswoman Chris Friesleben said the company keeps abreast of the illness through the Food Marketing Institute.

"The food supply is essential to the well-being of the community," said Hammonds.

"We've been through a lot about what we need to do as a supermarket."

That includes urging wholesalers and retailers to talk with their suppliers about alternative sources for their products and to anticipate what products will be in high demand in a pandemic situation, such as medicines and food staples.

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