Questions remain over Thai competence

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food safety, European union, Bangkok

European Union Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection
David Byrne yesterday expressed confidence that Thailand was free
from avian flu that is ravaging other parts of East Asia.

"There absolutely is no evidence of the existence of bird flu in Thailand,"​ he said after a meeting with the Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Authorities claim that the disease currently ravaging Thailand's poultry industry is not Avian 'flu but cholera.

According to a Bangkok Post​ report, Byrne went on to praise Thailand's food safety record. "Bangkok has made very great progress in recent times relating to food safety that will see fluent exports of poultry products and shrimp from Thailand to the EU,"​ the report quotes him as saying.

"We appreciate this because its [food safety system is] not only good for Thailand, but also good for consumers in the EU, who can have access to a variety of food, including good food from Thailand."

In a bid to dampen concerns about the the spread of cholera in its poultry industry, Thailand announced today that it would slaughter millions more chickens. Deputy agriculture minister Newin Chidchob said the mass cull would focus on five central provinces where the outbreak has spread since November.

"The government is launching a mass slaughter of chickens. We expect a few more millions of poultry to be destroyed within weeks,"​ Newin told Reuters​.

But not everyone is as confident in Thai assurances that the country remains free from the virus. "Thailand's leaders characteristically express over-confidence and premature over-reassurance in the face of the unknown and unproven,"​ Jody Lanard, a US-based risk communication consultant told​. "They have done the same thing regarding SARS preparation, and regarding terrorism."

Indeed, the Associated Press​ reported yesterday that Thailand, where bird 'flu has not been detected, is one of the few countries where chicken sales have dropped. According to Lanard, this looks like what he describes as the risk communication see-saw at work.

"Overconfident officials lead to sceptical consumers,"​ he said. "In my field, risk communication, we teach officials and experts to help the public tolerate uncertainty, to help the public bear anxiety when anxiety is appropriate, and to level with the public at all times. Thailand has a lot to learn."

Thai officials are desperate to prove that the country is free of bird flu that has destroyed poultry industries in Japan, Vietnam and South Korea. Thailand is Asia's largest chicken exporter and a major source of EU poultry imports.

In his meeting with Byrne, Thailand's prime minister urged the EU to reach a formal agreement that would result in mutual recognition of food standards. Thailand remains concerned that EU food standards continue pose a trade barrier.

This was underlined in a speech made by Byrne to leaders of Thailand's food industry yesterday. He expressed deep concern over the adverse impact of the exploitation of natural resources to boost exports of food products.

"Economic growth must be sustainable and this includes ensuring that it is not at the expense of the environment,"​the Bangkok Post​ quotes him as saying. "Aquaculture is a good example. There are increasing concerns in Europe that shrimps, in particular, are being farmed without taking into account the environmental implications.

"There is also a food safety dimension. If aquaculture conditions are not carefully managed, there is a clear risk of outbreaks of aquatic diseases. The recent problems with the use of banned antibiotics in aquaculture are suspected to have their origins in such practices."

Thai shrimp and poultry shipments used to face difficulties in entering the EU due to the detection of banned chemical substances. The EU recently eased the zero tolerance measures on Thai shrimp and poultry after the government geared up its sanitary system.

Although regional neighbour Singapore has slapped a partial ban on imports of live and frozen chicken from Thailand, key buyers Japan and the European Union have not imposed restrictions on Thai poultry imports. The Thai authorities are desperate to maintain this situation.

Related topics: Processing & Packaging

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