“You will die if you see what I am eating right now,” joked Poorna Banerjee when the meat lover was asked if it is ok to eat chicken during a bird flu outbreak two days ago. She was tucking into a half-and-half pizza—one part topped with parma ham, while the other was loaded with barbecue chicken at Indigo Deli. It was a time when news about the spread of avian flu among birds in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala made headlines, but Banerjee remains undeterred.
“The first thing you have to understand is that you have to cook your meat properly,” advises Kolkata-based Banerjee, who runs the food and travel blog Presented By P. She suggests giving uncooked meat pieces a thorough vinegar wash before cleaning with water, cooking the meat for a longer time and buying it from a trusted source. “Believe your meat vendor. They will be the first to tell you what to buy or avoid,” she says.
Hundreds of kilometres away, in Bengaluru, Chef Gautam Krishnankutty cooked Pijiu Ya, a spicy duck stew braised in beer with Sichuan peppercorns, dried chillis and dried citrus fruit peel. He posted about it on his Instagram page @gonzogarbanzo and it was enough to kick off instant cravings. He says, "I don’t blame people for their apprehension to not eat chicken or duck during a bird flu outbreak. But, eating well-cooked meat will not give you bird flu.” His ‘honest advise’ is to continue eating chicken.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has found no evidence that says avian flu can spread to humans if the meat is properly prepared and well cooked. The virus will die in high heat when the food reaches 70 degrees Celsius while cooking. But, fears about consuming meat during a bird flu outbreak is justified in the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic which is believed to have originated in a wet meat market. The novel coronavirus has mutated leading to several strains sparking concern. The spread of bird flu to humans has been linked to slaughter and 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,” WHO highlights.
Chinthu Antony, a meat supplier in Kochi who is the founder of the brand Tender 4 Sure which sells red meat and poultry, says that in the past week, he has got just three calls from his regular customers asking for his advise on consuming meat. “I see that my regular customers have not reduced eating meat. But, my supply to restaurants have been hit. People are worried about meat which is not prepared in their kitchens,” he says. People are weary of having chicken dishes like shwarmas at a time like this, because they can't accurately judge if the meat has been thoroughly cooked.
He shares the back story of how chicken is brought to his shop for sale. There are farms with ‘parent’ hens which lay eggs. These are hatched in incubators or by broody hens. The newly hatched chicks are given to a farmer to grow them which takes about 20-27 days. Then they are brought to cities, like Kochi, and kept in another farm for about 5-10 days till they grow to their optimum size. These birds are certified by a doctor and their health is monitored at every stage to determine if they are fit for human consumption. “Whenever a customer calls me raising concerns about eating meat during a bird flu outbreak, they are told that we know if a bird is unwell because they are constantly monitored,” says Antony.
In the words of Banerjee, cook your meat well, know where it comes from and trust your vendor.