Seeking to reassure people that chicken is safe to eat, companies that raise chickens said Thursday that they would test every flock for bird flu before the birds are slaughtered.
Companies that account for more than 90% of the nearly 10 billion chickens produced in 2005 in the U.S. have signed up for the testing program and said more were expected to follow, according to the National Chicken Council, a trade group that represents producers.
"We just want to assure people of the safety of the food supply," council spokesman Richard Lobb said.
Consumption of chicken in the U.S. has held steady despite worries about a bird flu strain that has infected millions of birds in Asia and parts of Europe and has killed 74 people.
The average person in the U.S. ate 85 pounds of chicken last year, compared with 84 pounds in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Chicken prices at the grocery store have dropped in recent months, mostly because production is up and exports are down, said David Harvey, a poultry analyst for the department's Economic Research Service.
The council did not say what companies are participating, but Lobb said "practically all the big ones are in it." Among the biggest in the industry are Tyson Foods Inc., Perdue Farms Inc. and Pilgrim's Pride Corp.
Lobb said companies were testing before the voluntary program's start Jan. 16. They will cover the costs; the council said it did not have cost estimates.
The plan is for 11 birds to be tested from each chicken flock, or farm. The council said that the average flock had 55,000 to 60,000 chickens and that there were about 150,000 flocks produced a year. That means more than 1.6 million chickens would be tested.
A consumer group said testing should be required of every company that raises chickens.
"For the industry to step up like this and start the testing program is a very important improvement," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "But it's critical that USDA ensure that all chicken producers are complying with the same requirements."
The virulent form of bird flu in Asia has not been found in the U.S. and is only now spreading into Eastern Europe. Health officials in the U.S. say it is safe to eat poultry that is properly handled and cooked.