The steady creep of bird flu 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.
Poultry consumption in Europe was just rebounding after plummeting briefly when avian flu influenza was discovered in flocks in Russia, Ukraine, Romania, and Turkey.
Earlier this week the European Commission reported bird flu had been found in wild birds in Austria, Greece, Italy and Slovenia. Bird flu has also been found outside the EU in Bulgaria and Azerbaijan.
Germany said yesterday two wild swans found on the island of Ruegen in the Baltic Sea were infected with the lethal H5N1 strain of the virus.
In Austria's case tests are being conducted to determine whether the disease is the H5N1 strain, which can be transmitted to humans.
Today the 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 earlier today.
The Commission also proposes to suspend the import of untreated feathers from all non-EU countries.
EU countries with bird flu have taken the agreed-upon measures to limit the spread of the disease. All five EU countries have put interim protection measures in place, including the establishment of a three kilometer protection zone around the area where the dead birds were found and a surrounding surveillance zone of 10 km.
In the protection zone, poultry must be kept indoors, movement of poultry is banned except directly to the slaughterhouse, and the dispatch of meat outside the zone is forbidden except under very limited conditions.
In both the protection and surveillance zone, on-farm biosecurity measures must be strengthened, hunting of wild birds is banned and disease awareness of poultry owners and their families must be carried out.
The Standing Committee on the Food and Chain and Animal Health is meeting today and tomorrow to review the situation within the EU.
Other EU governments have also stepped up biosecurity measures to help prevent bird flu from spreading.
Sweden's government has already ordered poultry farmers to keep their livestock indoors to prevent infection. Germany and France are considering whether to force farmers to confine more of their poultry flocks indoors.
Poultry consumption fell by between 30 per cent to 40 per cent in Italy, with lesser falls occurring in other countries the EU's poultry association reported in October and November. Bans on imports of birds from affected countries also cut down the sources of supplies for food manufacturers.
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.
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.
Slovenia has also imposed controls after authorities a dead swan also tested positive near the country's border with Austria. Azerbaijan said on Friday it had also discovered the H5N1 strain in wild birds on the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan has borders with Turkey, Russia, Iran, Armenia and Georgia.
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.
Four people have died of the disease in the country so far, the first ocurrances of the human form of H5N1 infection outside of Asia. Last month the European Union banned live animals and animal products from Northern Cyprus after H5N1 was detected in wild birds on the island.
Since the latest outbreak began in December 2003, avian flu has killed more than 80 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.
Poultry sales in Turkey have dropped by 70 per cent since bird flu was reported in humans earlier this month, 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.
Indonesia vaccinated 114 million poultry against avian flu with traditionally made vaccine in 2004.
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."