Industry News | April 27, 2009

Surviving the Swine Flu

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As news of the spreading swine flu makes its way across the country today, restaurant operators are no doubt crossing their fingers that this doesn’t turn into the mess they just survived with peanuts and pistachios.

Good news is that according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “swine influenza viruses are not spread by food.”

Furthermore, “you cannot get swine influenza from eating pork or pork products. Eating properly handled and cooked pork products is safe,” according to the department.

Hear that? That’s the sound of a collective industry sigh of relief.

But foodservice veterans know that plenty of safe ingredients get blackballed by consumers because of their association with health risks. High fructose corn syrup, anyone?

As a result, operators aren’t out of the swine-flu woods just yet.

“I didn’t really want to put a sign on the window because that would give people the wrong idea,” says Richard Averitte, marketing director for Smithfield's Chicken ‘N Bar-B-Q, explaining his strategy for notifying consumers about the outbreak.

The company is taking a proactive approach, having already posted to its Web site, Facebook account, and Twitter feed to reassure consumers the Smithfield menu is safe. Averitte has also conducted several local interviews with radio and television outlets.

“We just want to keep our customers informed,” Averitte says. “I wanted to nip it in the bud right now. I wanted to make it crystal clear, get out all the confusion and questions, and state the facts.”

The facts are that so far in the U.S. there have been 40 confirmed cases of swine flu: 7 cases in California, 2 cases in Kansas, 28 cases in New York City, 1 case in Ohio, and 2 cases in Texas.

What’s less known is just exactly how the virus spreads. Although the CDC has determined that the virus is contagious and is spreading from human to human.

Dr. Thomas Inglesby, deputy director and COO of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburg Medical Center, applauds the role the federal government has taken in alerting the public and reaching out to inform citizens within the first 72 hours of the outbreak.

“The federal government is taking this as seriously as they can,” Inglesby says. “The Center for Disease Control’s scientific team is working 24/7.”

Averitte’s attempts to keep consumers abreast of outbreak news might already be paying off as well.

“To be honest we had a below-average day on Saturday and we were afraid there was a parallel,” he says. “But Sunday, yesterday, was tremendous all the way around.

“We like to think perhaps the public was reassured and saw it was OK to eat our food. Some of our stores were up 20 percent from last year. We’re very fortunate.”

--Blair Chancey