Monday, October 10, 2005

Unfortunately, it's not science fiction

With all the big stories that broke last week—the earthquake in Pakistan, the targeting of New York subways by terrorists, the disclosure that 9/11-style airliner hijackings were thwarted in 2002 and ’03—you might have missed one that was even more alarming. It deals with a possibility that would be unlike anything the nation has ever seen, and would likely devastate much of the industry.

As The New York Times <> reported on Saturday, the federal government is preparing for the possibility that Asia’s avian flu will morph into an illness that could readily be passed from human to human. If that happens, a human disease that has thus far afflicted only about 100 persons could spread to tens of millions. A study generated for the Bush Administration and leaked to the Times reportedly says that casualties in the U.S. could soar as high as 1.9 million. Officials have already warned that it would be the worst disaster ever to affect the U.S.

With a projection that dire, even a remote threat of an outbreak could prompt federal or state authorities to halt travel from Asia or other infected areas of the world. Suspicions of infection could scare tourists and business travelers away from some U.S. destinations. Just ask Toronto, where hotels sat virtually empty, their occupancy rates in single digits, after the world learned that some residents were hospitalized with SARS.

In disclosing details from the report, the Times reported that food might be in short supply, and that sectors of the population could be subjected to a quarantine enforced by the military. The present-day foodservice industry is woven into the very fabric of present-day life, a key reason for its phenomenal success. But if that social fabric is shredded, the trade suffers accordingly.

This is not meant to trivialize the impact of a trans-global pandemic. Tens of millions of people die, and the restaurant industry should worry about the impact on sales? A bit myopic, wouldn’t you say? Besides, the government’s concerns are based on a possibility that may never come to pass, not a certainty.

But that’s not the intent of this at all. The foodservice business is so consuming that its members often lack the time to raise their heads and look around at what’s happening in the world at large. As big as this story is, it might’ve slipped by you. You’ll likely be hearing far more about what government and science authorities will be doing to minimize the risk, or temper the damage. Hopefully this will help you understand what’s at stake.


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