Retailers panic as bird flu hits customer confidence

By Anita Awbi

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Poultry Influenza

Recent media hype surrounding avian flu - and news that the deadly
virus has spread to Romania and Greece - is sure to have a knock-on
effect for British retailers who are struggling to keep a brave

Although retailers deny poultry sales have been impacted by the spread of the lethal H5N1 bird flu strain, Asda Wal-Mart, Britain's second largest food retailer, has started an in-store marketing campaign aimed at reassuring customers. And Sainsburys has announced it will follow suit.

Sainsburys, the UK's third biggest supermarket chain with a 15.6 per cent market share, today refuted claims it has seen a serious slump in poultry sales, citing fresh chicken fillet packs as the week's best selling items.

But a company spokesperson told​: "The scaremongering over the weekend caused sales to dip slightly at the start of the week, but the media is putting out headline figures which is exacerbating the issue."

She insisted that as UK poultry has not been infected by bird flu, grocery sales are still doing well. And Tesco is keen to assert that more than 90 per cent of its poultry is sourced from UK suppliers, and the avian flu pandemic is not damaging their sales figures.

Katie Jenkins, Tesco spokesperson, explained: "We've been watching this issue and working on a contingency."

"Over 90 per cent of our chicken is sourced from British farms, so we don't source from countries that have been affected."

The British Poultry Council was today unable to confirm retail sales figures, declining to comment on the latest developments of the avian flu virus.

But in Italy, the Italian farmer's confederation reported last week that sales had fallen by 30 to 40 per cent, and Spanish retailers are on high alert following reports this week of infected Romanian poultry farms.

The French poultry wholesalers' union told local newspapers that poultry consumption has dropped by about 10 per cent since the beginning of October compared to last year. The union pinpointed bird flu as the main reason for the decline in sales.

"In some member states there seems to be a drop in consumption, but this is not the case for everybody,"​ said Cees Vermeeren, representative of AVEC, the association of EU poultry processors.

"We hope this trend will not spread, but the market and consumers are unpredictable. It could develop into hysteria, which would not help anybody,"​ he said.

Romanian chicken consumption has dropped by half since the deadly flu strain reached the country last week, and the spreading pandemic could wreak havoc on the EU poultry industry.

A serious outbreak of the milder H5N7 form of avian influenza in the Netherlands in 2003, spreading to Belgium and Germany, affected some 250 farms and necessitated the slaughter of more than 28 million poultry.

The country was Europe's biggest poultry producer at the time with more than 100 million chickens. About 30 million had to be destroyed at a direct cost of €150 million. The Dutch Agricultural Research Institute estimates the total cost for the Dutch farm sector, including related industries, at €500 million.

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