Bird flu hits Greece, spectre of losses looms

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

With the human-pathogenic form of bird flu hitting Greece, EU
poultry processors are facing immense potential to damage to their
industry due to losses from plunging consumer demand and exports.

Processing managers woke up today to the news that the H5 form of the virus, which can affect humans in contact with infected birds, was identified in a turkey from the Aegean island of Oinoussa.This makes Greece the first EU member state to report a case of the variant, which has been spreading westwards from Asia.

This after previous confirmation last week of cases in Turkey and Romania.

There are already signs that poultry demand has already started to weaken in some parts of Europe. Even before the first H5 avian influenza case was found there, the Greek daily Expres said consumptionof poultry meat had decreased by 40 per cent over the week.

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 birdflu as the main reason for the drop. EU exporters could also face bans on live birds and uncooked meat as happened in Asia.

As EU food consultancy Gira has noted, bird flu had a high negative impact on consumer confidence in a number of Asian markets, resulting in dramatic decline in demand throughout the region lastyear. Poultry consumption in Asia was further affected by trade restrictions which have limited supply, especially from Thailand and from China.

The ongoing outbreak in Asia has led to the destruction of more than 125 million birds, the death of around 60 people and economic losses estimated at €8 to €12 billion, according to AVEC, theEU's association for poultry processors. In Europe the reduced import supply pressures from Asian markets led to European poultry prices rising, which was also boosted by high feed grain costs lastyear.

In August 2005 the threat of a new outbreak in the EU became more present after the high pathogenic H5N1 strain spread into the Ukraine and more than 10.000 birds had to be destroyed.

The EU's member states have taken different approaches in response to the risk, but the bloc's poultry processors' association, AVEC, has urged the European Commission to take the lead in promotingcommon protective measures.

The European Union produces 11 million tonnes of poultry meat a year, making it the second largest meat sector in the bloc after pork. The bloc exports about 1.1 million tonnes annually, a marketworth about €1 billion.

Poultry production gradually recovered in 2004 after the outbreak of avian flu in the Netherlands during spring 2003, which reduced EU production in 2003 by about two per cent.

The outbreak of the milder H5N7 form of the virus in the Netherlands in 2003 gives some idea of potential losses. The country was Europe's biggest poultry producer at the time with more than 100million chickens. About 30 million had to be destroyed at a direct cost of €150 million.

The Dutch Agricultural Research Institute estimates that total costs for the Dutch farm sector, including related industries, at €500 million.

Paul McMullin, managing director of UK-based Poultry Health Services, says he believes the European Commission has taken all the precautions it can given the current scientific evidence.

As a long as culling of any affected birds occurred quickly and the movement of birds was controlled the spread of the disease could be limited within the bloc, he told FoodProductionDaily.com.

Vaccination efforts in flocks could also slow the spread of the disease rapidly. The main aim should be to increase surveillance efforts to detect any outbreaks quickly.

"There is no point in speculating further given the information currently available,"​ he said.

Thorkil Ambrosen, head of the poultry committee in Denmark, said member producers were stepping up surveillance efforts. He told FoodProductionDaily.com he had not noticed a drop in consumptionyet.

"We have had no negative reaction that I have noticed yet,"​ he said.

The Danish industry has stepped up surveillance and has put a rapid alert system in place, allowing for faster test results. A map of high risk areas is being drawn up today.

An April the European Commission adopted a draft directive updating measures to prevent and control avian influenza. The update is expected to enter into force on 1 January 2007.

A meeting of the EU's External Relations Council today will evaluate the bloc's readiness to deal with an outbreak of avian influenza.

Related topics: Regulation and safety

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