If the recent news explosion about bird flu has taught us anything, it’s that food scares abhor a vacuum. Now that the British government has declared the mad-cow scare has peaked and is in decline, the news media — and animal rights groups — are substituting one animal-disease panic for another. The predictable result can be found in a nationwide opinion survey that the Center for Consumer Freedom recently commissioned. Our polling data, released this morning, indicate that a whopping 47 percent of Americans believe the myth that they can contract bird flu by eating chicken.

Last month the European Food Safety Authority did something that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to do: It proclaimed that “there is no evidence to suggest to date that avian influenza can be transmitted to humans through consumption of food, notably poultry and eggs.” Dr. Hugh Pennington, president of the UK’s renowned Society for General Microbiology, made an even stronger statement to the BBC: “The virus is transmitted by live birds. It’s not in the poultry meat and it’s certainly not in eggs.

How many Americans have regular contact — or any contact — with live chickens? We’re betting the number is tiny. But as with the similarly tiny U.S. mad-cow risk, an unhealthy paranoia may already be gripping us. Only 177 people worldwide have contracted variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the mad-cow strain found in humans. And not one has acquired the disease by eating U.S. beef. As for bird flu, no cases have reached the U.S., and no U.S. poultry have been implicated.

So why are 47 percent of us worried that a bird-flu virus might lurk in our next chicken nugget, drumstick, or fajita? Aside from the nonstop drumbeat of fear (with little effort on the part of authorities to let people know that eating chicken is perfectly safe), animal rights activism may play a role.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is loudly squawking that “Eating Meat Threatens Millions With Bird Flu.” And according to a November 2 e-mail from PETA, the group promises another in its series of “naked” protests tomorrow afternoon, this one aiming to further flack false flu fears:

PETA is going to be in DC next Wednesday, and I wanted to see if you’d be available to come out and join us! We are bringing our “Bird Flu Coffin Demonstration” to the USDA Headquarters … In light of the bird flu scare, PETA is encouraging people to go vegetarian to help fight this potential pandemic. At this demonstration, “naked” activists will lie in coffins with flowers and fake blood on them while activists, two of them in chicken and turkey costumes, will hand out leaflets.