The steady creep of avian influenza toward the heart of the EU is feeding into consumers' fears about their health and the safety of the bloc's poultry flocks. Earlier this year, four children died in Turkey, the first ever confirmed deaths of humans due to bird flu outside of Asia. The deaths and the encroachment into the EU's borders makes for a dismal prognosis for poultry processors who face both a narrowing of their supply sources and a fall in consumption demand.
So far infection of poultry flocks or human deaths have not been detected within the EU's borders.
France is the sixth EU member state to report finding the deadly form of bird flu in wild birds, following confirmation from Hungary, Germany, Italy, Austria, and Greece. Bird flu has also been found in Russia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan and Turkey. France is also the world's fourth largest poultry producer.
Last week, before the discovery of the infection, the UK's Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD) reported that in France chicken consumption has fallen by about 20 per cent since the beginning of 2006. Poultry producers in the country normally have annual sales of about €5.2m.
Tests on the bird, found in the central-eastern Ain department last Monday, confirmed that it was carrying the highly pathogenic strain of the flu, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fishing said Saturday in a statement.
Zones of protection as required by EU law have been put in place; the ministry stated on its Internet site.
Agriculture Minister Dominique Bussereau has also announced that about 900,000 birds in the three western French districts of Landes, Loire-Atlantique, and Vendee will be vaccinated starting Wednesday.
Doux, France's largest poultry processor, told Reuters news agency that the level of orders from the Middle East, for February and March, are down between 20 to 30 per cent.
The company's website says all the group's poultry farms are ?tted out with health barriers.
"The structures used by the group's partner farmers are isolated from the outside world and the poultry cannot under any circumstances come into contact with migratory animals," the company stated, adding that there is a strict separation of species and poultry is transported by truck and with equipment that is cleaned and disinfected.
France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Sweden have all taken steps last week to try to prevent the spread of the deadly H5N1 strain, which can be transmitted to humans.
The countries ordered that domestic fowl be kept in screened, ventilated buildings to prevent contact with wild birds potentially carrying the disease. The UK and the Netherlands have made similar precautions.
Meanwhile the UK's authorities seem to have accepted that bird flu will eventually show up in the country following in incident in France. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it has consulted with ornithological and meteorological experts and with key industry stakeholders.
"We have concluded that this is a new development which increases the likelihood that H5N1 may be found in the UK," stated Fred Landeg, Defra's deputy chief veterinary officer stated on Friday. "However, we believe that the existing precautionary measures that we have in place remain sufficient and appropriate for the time being."
The consultant ornithologists have advised Defra that ducks from the Lyon region do not normally fly to the UK at this time of the year. However the pochard duck uses the East Atlantic flyway, which is the same migratory path under which the UK lies.
“We have existing robust surveillance measures in place and have taken over 3500 samples from wild birds, which so far have not detected H5N1 in the UK," Defra stated.
In December Defra launched a poultry register. Its purpose is to provide a central database of information on poultry premises. Keepers with 50 or more birds have a statutory obligation to register.
Last week the European Commission announced two new measures designed to limit the disease had received favourable opinions from member states. A Commission proposal to approve member states' individual surveillance plans for avian influenza, and to provide up to 50 per cent co-funding for the programmes was endorsed by the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health.
The measures include a three km ‘protection zone’ around the place where the birds with H5 infection were found for at least 30 days along with a 10 km ‘surveillance zone’ for the next three weeks.
Within the protection zone poultry must be kept indoors. All movement of poultry, excluding direct transportation to a slaughterhouse is banned. No meat may be transported outside the protection zone.
In both the protection and surveillance zone farm biosecurity measures must be strengthened and the hunting of wild birds is banned. All bird markets and exhibitions are banned.
Early warning measures are in place in all member states to ensure quick detection of the disease, both in domestic and wild birds. Contingency plans call for the rapid control and eradication of avian influenza should it occur in poultry farms.
H5N1 was first detected in birds in the WHO European Region in late July 2005. Since then, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) has reported confirmed cases of H5N1 in birds in eleven countries in the region.
The WHO global pandemic alert remains unchanged at level three. Avian influenza is still primarily an animal disease. It has caused disease in humans, but is not yet spreading efficiently and sustainably among humans.
The Italian farmers' association report reported last week that the industry is losing €6m a day, and has lost a total of about €650m so far.
The Italian poultry market annually produces 13bn eggs, 430m chickens, 40m hens, 36m turkeys and 100m other species for a total of 1,200,000 tonnes of meat. The agricultural sector had a turnover of €4.2bn, the association reported.
The IGD survey found that 40 per cent of consumers in the UK were "worried or rather worried" about their health due to the risk of avian flu spreading.
In France and Spain the figure is 50 per cent, while 30 per cent of Germans feel the same way about the disease. The survey found that the spread of the disease had not seemed to affect British attitudes toward buying chicken.
About 80 per cent of those surveyed reported no change in their purchasing habits. About 12 to 13 per cent reported they bought less, while about eight per cent reported buying more. Younger shoppers are more likely than any other age demographic group to have changed their purchasing behaviour, the survey found.
The IGD also reported that 17 per cent of shopper who eat out bought less British poultry compared to nine per cent of those who cook from scratch.
Lessons learned from previous outbreaks of BSE and food and mouth diseases in livestock indicate that the industry needs to ensure they provide a credible source of information about avian influenza, the IGD said.
Other countries consumption falls are also indicative of the fear affecting the industry. Poultry sales in Turkey have dropped by 70 per cent since bird flu was reported in humans earlier in January, according to a report in Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper. Kemal Akman, head of the union of poultry producers, is quoted as saying the industry would suffer losses amounting to €30 million per month.
In Spain, the bird flu scare resulted in a short-lived reduction in poultry meat consumption during late October and early November. By the third week of November poultry consumption had rebounded to top that of the previous year by 13 per cent, the Spanish government said.
Now H5N1 avian influenza is in Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Africa, along with its original starting point in east Asia. The disease has led to the culling of millions of poultry.
Since the latest outbreak began in December 2003, avian flu has killed more than 90 people in four Southeast Asian countries and killed or led to culling of an estimated 200 million birds across the region and in Turkey and Russia.
Indonesia vaccinated 114 million poultry against avian flu with traditionally made vaccine in 2004. India last week confirmed the presence of avian flu and has started a mass culling of poultry.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has warned that the virus could become entrenched in the Black Sea, Caucasus and Near East regions through trade and movement of people and animals and it could be further spread by migratory birds particularly coming from Africa in the spring.
“Fighting the avian influenza virus in animals is the most effective and cost-effective way to reduce the likelihood of H5N1 mutating or reassorting to cause a human flu pandemic,” the FAO stated. “Containing bird flu in domestic animals – mostly chickens and ducks - will significantly reduce the risk to humans. Avian influenza should not only be considered as a human health issue, but as a human and animal health issue."
The FAO has expressed growing concern that the bird flu virus H5N1 may spread to other countries in West Africa following the discovery of the virus in Nigeria earlier this month.