Processors take rearguard action as avian flu fear mounts

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Poultry, Influenza, Avian influenza, Meat, Eu

How times change for the EU's poultry processing industry, which is
now looking on in horror as their markets melt away in the face of
an onslaught of publicity about avian flu.

With the increasing advance of avian flu westwards from Asia, demand for poultry products has fallen by between 30 per cent to 40 per cent in Italy, with lesser falls occurring in other countriessaid Cees Vermeeren, the Brussels representative for the Association of Poultry Processors and Poultry Trade in the EU countries (AVEC). Prices for poultry have dropped by up to 40 per cent, according to the Italian farmers' union. European consumers are increasing concerned about food safety, mainly due to the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) scare in cattle, a foot and mouth disease outbreak in 2001 and avian flu in2003. Chicken is the main source of food poisoning in Europe. In the EU poultry consumption overtook beef and veal in 1996, when BSE hit the headlines. Pork holds the number one position in the EU and could gain from the current crisis hitting the poultryindustry. "We are very concerned that this publicity is going to lead to the same consumer reaction as happened (to beef) during the BSE crisis," he said to "Thisis what we want to avoid." The crisis hitting the processing industry is occurring just when Avec was predicting a rebound in poultry consumption and exports in the EU, which has been impacted by previous health scares andcheap imports from Asia. "It is clear how time can change for us very rapidly and fast," Vermeeren said. He advises member companies to pay more attention on how they source poultry for their products and to insure that their suppliers are taking the necessary hygiene precautions. Avec is currently lobbying the European Commission to tone down its communications linking a human health problem with avian flu. "We are asking them to emphasise that is still an animal disease in the EU," he said. "The situation in the EU is different from that of Asia. In Asia people live in closecontact with poultry and have more chance of catching the disease." Because there is already so much publicity about the possible effects of avian flu on health, he said it was difficult for the association to determine whether it should increase its communicationefforts focusing on the safety of poultry and poultry products. There might be a backlash from the public if people become suspicious about a stepped up effort emphasising poultry safety. In the UK for example, regulators are cautioning the public to cook their poultry meat properly. Supermarkets there have posted signs stating that their are sourcing their meat from safe UKsources. "Poultry is not intended to be eaten raw or semi-cooked," Vermeeren said. "So our advice on this has not changed from the past." The EU produces about 11m tonnes of poultry meat annually, of which chicken accounts for 70 per cent of the total, turkey 20 per cent and ducks four per cent. The poultry sector is the secondlargest meat producing sector after pork. The EU exports about 1.1m tonnes a year. Poultry production gradually recovered in 2004 after the outbreak of avian flu in the Netherlands during spring 2003. The outbreak reduced EU production by about two per cent. Production in 2004was slightly less than in 2003. "The medium-term outlook for poultry production remains relatively positive as competitive prices with respect to other meats, strong consumer preference and increased use in foodpreparations should continue to play in favour of poultry," the association stated. Meanwhile throughout the EU industry and governments are reacting to the crisis. Earlier this week processing managers woke up to the news that the H5 form of the virus, which can affect humans incontact with feces or blood from infected birds, was identified in a turkey from the Aegean island of Oinoussa. This made 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. Even before the first H5 avian influenza case was found there, the Greek daily Expres said consumption of 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 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, includingrelated industries, at €500 million. Northern Foods, a UK company, has already noted that its expenditure on chicken meat has increased because it has turned to locally produced chickens rather than sourcing from cheaper providersoverseas. Other related measures: Germany, Poland said farmers must confine all live poultry to their pens to prevent them from coming into contact with migrating birds; The UK's organic poultry association warned members to be prepared to bring their poultry indoors; Romanian chicken consumption has dropped by half since the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu reached the country; The Netherlands ordered all poultry all bird migratory routes indoors and the disinfectation of lorries carrying live poultry or eggs from countries affected by bird flu. UK supermarkets are urging customers not to be put off buying chicken over fears of catching bird flu and are posting notices in stores reassuring them that poultry meat is safe to eat.

Related topics: Processing & Packaging

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