Are EU consumers at risk?
decimated by an outbreak of Avian 'flu brought forth a swift EU
response. A ban on Thai imports into the bloc was put in place
No other country in South East Asia, the region where the virus has struck, is allowed to export chicken to the EU.
The sense of urgency was probably heightened by the fact that the UK's recent foot and mouth epidemic was almost certainly started by pigs being fed infected imported meat.
But Avian 'flu is far more sinister than foot and mouth. The virus, which destroyed much of Northern Europe's poultry industry last year, can range from a mild disease that has only minor effects to a highly infectious version that is fatal.
And more worryingly, the contagious bird flu that has spread across parts of Asia in recent weeks has jumped to humans in Vietnam and Thailand, killing seven people. The WHO said people working in the poultry industry should be aware that the disease may be able to jump to humans, but that eating properly cooked chicken was harmless.
Indeed, food safety agencies across Europe have been quick to stress that Avian 'flu is not a food safety issue. "The Food Standards Agency considers that the current Avian 'flu outbreak does not pose a food safety risk for UK consumers," said the FSA. "This is because people can catch the disease by being in close contact with live chickens that have the disease and not through eating chicken."
It is believed that those who have caught the disease in Vietnam and Thailand had been in direct contact with live chickens.
The only raw chicken that will have been on sale in the EU, and is still on sale, dates from before the reported outbreak of avian flu in Thailand. The European Union (EU) has banned all imports of raw chicken from Thailand into the EU from 1 January 2004.
It is therefore extremely unlikely that the virus will affect European consumers. However, the WHO says that the virus can survive indefinitely if frozen in meat, and food safety bodies are warning that there is a small chance uncooked leftovers fed to poultry might spread the disease here.
Meanwhile, back in Asia, farmers are paying for official incompetence with their health and their livelihoods. Indonesian farmers have criticised the government for being too slow in recognising the outbreak, which has already killed millions of chickens and looks likely to severely damage the economy. There is also evidence that the Thai government covered up the outbreak for weeks.
Indonesian Farmers' Association chairman Siswono Yudhohusodo said the bird flu outbreak had already cost the poultry industry billions of rupiah. "It shows the government has not been alert from the beginning. I deeply regret that the initial diagnosis was far too simple and attributed to Newcastle disease," Yudhohusodo told Reuters.
And despite the culling of tens of millions of birds across South East Asia, the virus shows no sign of being contained. The latest news is that the virus is believed to have been found in Cambodia.
"The current situation is of serious concern for human health as well as for agriculture and poultry industry," said the WHO. "Rapid elimination of the virus in bird populations should be given a high priority as a matter of international public health importance."