The march of avian influenza across Europe has heightened the public's fears over the safety of the bloc's poultry. Poultry consumption has plunged in many EU member states, by up to 70 per cent in some countries. Scientists are worried that the H5N1 form of the virus, which can be transmitted from poultry to humans, may mutate so that it can be transmitted from human to human and start a influenza pandemic. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reported that recent avian influenza outbreaks in Europe, the Middle East and Africa have caused dramatic swings in poultry consumption, increased trade bans and sharp price declines. The UN agency expects poultry consumption shocks this year in many countries. "A steady erosion of previously expected gains in per caput poultry consumption will likely push down global poultry consumption in 2006, currently estimated at 81.8 million tonnes, nearly three million tonnes lower than the previous 2006 estimate of 84.6 million tonnes," stated FAO commodity specialist Nancy Morgan. In other news the UK's Times newspaper reported today that France's authorities delayed informing the European Commission for several days about the discovery of a wild duck with bird flu. The Times discovered the delay through documents obtained under environmental information regulations from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Seven dead ducks were found by a lake at Joyeux, eastern France, on 11 February by a hunter who alerted officials. The EU obliges nations to test immediately but France waited two days, the Times claims. "No security measures were imposed between the discovery of the dead duck and the announcement, six days later, that the H5N1 strain, which can kill human beings, was responsible," the newspaper reported. A turkey farm 200 yards away later became the first poultry business in Europe to contract the virus. The discovery resulted in the culling of about 9,000 turkeys. A total of 49 countries have since imposed bans on imports of poultry from France. Another 29 wild birds have since perished locally from H5N1. France is Europe's largest poultry producer, and the world's fourth largest exporter, behind the US, China and Brazil. France's poultry exports are worth about €983m per year. France's government has said that its poultry sector is losing about €40m euros a month. Poultry consumption in France has fallen sharply, between 20 and 30 per cent according to the country's poultry association, APVF. Some producers have resorted to offering a second chicken free to those who buy one. Germany's poultry industry has seen demand drop 20 per cent due to bird flu, the USDA reported. The German government estimates that the sector has lost about €140m euros since last autumn. In Hungary, poultry producers said their sales had fallen by 20 per cent since the H5N1 virus was first found there in dead swans on 21 February. Europe's poultry industry has a turnover of about €20bn euros each year, producing 11 million tonnes of meat. The sector employs about 500,000 people, according to AVEC, the bloc's poultry producers association. In other news, the Netherland's has started its EU-authorised vaccination programme for domestic poultry. The Netherlands and France received EU permission to being a controversal vaccination programme in late February. The Netherlands plan applies to hobby poultry and to free-range laying hens throughout the whole country. The vaccination will be provided on a voluntary basis, as an alternative to the requirement that these birds be kept indoors. France plan to vaccinate approximately 900 000 ducks and geese which can not easily be put indoors and separated from wild birds in the departments of Landes, Loire-Atlantique and Vendée. The Netherlands had an outbreak of a different bird flu virus in 2003 that led to the culling of 30 million chickens, or over a third of its poultry population. Japan has put a ban Dutch poultry imports over health fears about vaccinated meat. The Netherlands is is Europe's second-biggest poultry producer after France. The country's main poultry markets are Germany, Britain, Belgium, France, Ukraine, Japan, Poland and Russia. According to the FAO report consumption shocks are ranging from a dramatic 70 per cent decline in Italy in mid-February to 20 per cent in France and 10 per cent in northern Europe. These responses are similar to the European situation in late 2005 when widespread consumer concerns about bird flu outbreaks contributed to an annual one percent consumption drop in 15 countries in the EU. In Africa, consumers in affected countries, such as Egypt and Nigeria, are moving away from poultry and egg products as are consumers in surrounding non-affected countries. In India reports of consumption drops of 25 per cent have caused domestic prices to fall 12 to 13 per cent. Sharply reduced international poultry prices are raising uncertainty among exporters about trade prospects in 2006, the FAO stated. "As consumers look for alternatives to poultry, global trade prospects will likely erode from the 10 per cent gains witnessed in 2005," the organisation stated. In the US, export prices for broiler cuts, after rising to record levels in October, dropped 13 per cent as a result of declining shipments to Eastern Europe and Central Asia in November and December. In Brazil, where exports account for approximately 30 per cent of total poultry output, the price of day-old chicks, an early warning indicator of potential production changes, is down sharply. Brazil and the US supply about 70 per cent of global poultry trade. The largest poultry producers and exporters are the United States, Brazil and the EU. The crisis has also affected the $42 billion dollar feed sector in Europe, with demand losses estimated at up to 40 per cent in some countries, the FAO stated. Around 200 million chickens have been culled or have died of the disease worldwide since the onset of the crisis in late 2003. In other related news: On 8 March the Albanian government confirmed the presence of the H5N1 strain in domestic poultry in the southern part of the country. Unlike the case in other European countries where AI virus was first discovered in wild birds, the first Albanian case was found in domestic chickens. Measures to prevent spreading of the virus have been taken by the Albanian government including setting up a three km quarantine zone and culling chickens in the affected area. A US department of agriculture report states that poultry consumption in Albania has already dropped 40 per cent. Three human deaths in Azerbaijan likely were caused by the H5N1 avian influenza virus, according to the World Health Organization. At the moment H5N1 is rarely deadly to humans. Globally, 175 people have fallen ill, and 96 have died due to H5N1. Azerbaijan is the eighth country nation to report human deaths from the disease.