"It's hard to tell at the moment," British Poultry Council chief executive Peter Bradnock told FoodProductionDaily.com. "There is now an EU ban on Thai imports, but this doesn't cover cooked imports. If the meat is cooked, there is no possibility of the virus spreading. So this is not a food safety issue. There is no possibility of people being infected, and there is no possibility of the virus being spread here."
According to Bradnock, the main threat to EU poultry production comes from public perception of the crisis. "I do worry that if the public is told there is nothing to be concerned about, and then finds out that that people are still serving them Thai poultry, then there might be a backlash against poultry meat as a whole," he said.
Bradnock is worried that a degree of misinformation is already finding its way into the public domain. "In the UK, there is a big ad for Marks & Spencer's chicken products, which says 'We can trace it, so you can trust it'. So we can see retailers upping the ante already. The problem of course is that this is not a food safety issue."
As public fears are heightened, the EU chicken industry as a whole is in danger of being undermined. Bradnock suspects that behind the scenes, caterers and suppliers are scrambling to find new sources of supply.
Traders in the UK alone imported around 50,000 tonnes of chicken meat from Thailand last year, mostly frozen cooked breastmeat used in ready meals, sandwiches and prepared convenience foods. Importers are likely to face financial difficulties sourcing meat from within the EU, where production costs are higher than in Thailand.
But the situation for poultry processors in Thailand, as in much of South East Asia, is truly desperate. Charoen Pokphand Foods, Thailand's major poultry exporter, predicts that its revenue will be badly affected by the current crisis. The company also said in a statement that its frozen chicken business, which makes up 6 per cent of total revenue, is likely to be especially badly hit by bans from Japan and the European Union.
Thailand's deputy agriculture minister Newin Chidchob said that he couldn't say when the country would be able to resume normal chicken exports, after confirming yesterday that 10 provinces have now been hit by the virus.
In Laos, a government official today confirmed that bird flu had been found in chickens there, bringing to 10 the number of Asian countries to have detected the disease. The countries that have detected the virus are Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Pakistan, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan and Vietnam.