LOUISVILLE, Kentucky – At Kentucky Fried Chicken, Colonel Harland Sanders' face remains a staple on company signs and food containers. Now the goateed image of the restaurant chain's founder appears on a sticker meant to head off any concerns about eating chicken if bird flu spreads to the United States.
The small stickers are being put on the lid of every bucket of chicken that KFC sells in the U.S.
The seal is a pre-emptive campaign assuring customers that the chicken is "rigorously inspected, thoroughly cooked, quality assured."
"While it doesn't specifically mention avian flu, for deliberate reasons, it reassures our customers that our food is perfectly safe," said Jonathan Blum, a spokesman for Yum Brands Inc., the parent of KFC.
A virulent strain of the virus has spread through Asia, Europe and Africa, and the outbreaks occurred in some countries where Kentucky Fried Chicken does business, with mixed results on its profits.
In Turkey and Trinidad, KFC's business slumped for a few weeks before recovering after the chain ran ads and handed out material at stores to reassure customers that its chicken was safe to eat, Blum said.
In China, Yum's operating profit plunged by 20 percent in last year's fourth quarter, due partly to concern about avian flu. KFC sales had rebounded by February and March in the fast-growing market. In Thailand, the avian flu hasn't had an impact on sales, Blum said.
"We believe we have weathered the storm very well as avian flu has moved across the globe," Yum Chairman and Chief Executive David Novak said in a conference call with analysts this week.
Not all chicken chains in the United States see the need for such measures.
Chick-fil-A, based in Atlanta, currently doesn't have plans to add a food-safety message to its packaging, though it has been discussed as part of contingency planning, said company spokesman Don Perry.
"For now, our customers are not expressing a need to us to add this type of messaging to our menu items," he said in an e-mail.
Perry said there could be "'trigger points' in the future that would cause us to draw that level of direct attention to AI (avian influenza) concerns with our customers."
Blum said in an interview that KFC has safeguards in place stretching from "farm to table" to guarantee that its chicken is safe.
KFC suppliers keep the birds under cover to prevent contact with any migratory bird that might carry the virus, Blum said. Each flock is checked for the virus before being shipped for processing, he said. At processing plants, each piece of chicken is inspected before being sent to restaurants and then the chicken is cooked at high temperatures as another safeguard, he said.
"You would probably be more likely to win the Powerball twice than you would the likelihood of an infected product coming to our restaurant," Blum said.
Jim Rogers, a U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman, said poultry is federally inspected at slaughterhouses.
Cooking chicken at temperatures of at least 165 degrees inactivates viruses such as the avian flu, Rogers said in an interview.
"So I don't think you have to worry if you eat cooked chicken," he said.
At a KFC restaurant in its corporate hometown of Louisville, several lunchtime customers weren't worried about bird flu.
"It just doesn't seem like you would get bird flu from eating Kentucky Fried Chicken," said Colby Miller of Louisville.
Miller said he didn't think the safety seal was necessary.
"I think it's probably one of those things that people (are) just taking it too far, creating more drama," he said.