From the Hen House to Your Dinner Table? Genetically Modified Chickens: Bird-Flu-Proof and Delicious for Pandemic Free Cooking

From the Hen House to Your Dinner Table? Genetically Modified Chickens: Bird-Flu-Proof and Delicious for Pandemic Free Cooking

Baby Chicken

By Joyce Wu

The names alone are enough to send shivers down spines. There’s just something frightening and sinister about diseases that can spread like wildfire and quietly kill millions. It comes as no surprise, then, that whenever the possibility of a pandemic is even whispered these days, countries are thrown into states of frenzy. Who could forget the SARS scare of 2003 or even the recent concerns about swine flu? The news isn’t all bad though. Scientists in the UK have unveiled new genetically modified (GM) chickens that can’t spread bird flu to their other feathered friends.

H5N1 influenza, more commonly known as bird flu and the subject of a July 2006 Risk Management cover story, has a history of wreaking havoc among people and poultry alike. In the past decade, outbreaks of H5N1 in Southeast Asia have claimed hundreds of human lives. Millions of chicken flocks have also been destroyed as health organizations attempt to stem the spread of the disease. Bird flu, therefore, presents challenges from both economic and health standpoints.

The genetically engineered chickens can ensure greater food security, as well as protect poultry farmers from economic losses, in areas where bird flu is prevalent. Furthermore, eliminating the transmission of H5N1 between birds also reduces the risk of the disease being passed on from chicken to human, thus lowering the risk of flu epidemics. The secret lies in a special decoy molecule in the GM chickens that prevents the virus from replicating and spreading.

Don’t expect GM chicken to be on Sunday night’s dinner menu though. There are a number of political and economic obstacles that must be surpassed before these chickens can be bred on commercial farms, not to mention that the public is still wary about food that has been scientifically tampered with. The British scientists predict that it will cost about $79,000 just to produce a few chickens that can be bred. Although feasible for affluent nations, the price tag is too high for the developing countries that need the most protection from bird flu. The ultimate goal, however, is to engineer a chicken that will be resistant to the H5N1 disease completely.

While prospects look good, don’t count your chickens just yet.

Joyce Wu is a contributing writer from Madison, New Jersey. Her email address is

"Reprinted with permission from Risk Management Monitor. Copyright 2011 Risk and Insurance Management Society, Inc. All rights reserved."

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