The investigation shows the problem processors have when sourcing supplies of poultry fromcountries where the H5N1 virus has been found and where only partial restrictions on trade have beenput in place by the authorities. Processors must be especially vigilant in such cases about ensuringthey are sourcing supplies from non-restricted areas, or face the consequences.
In a statement yesterday, the Department of the Environment, and Rural Affairs (Defra) said theinvestigation was launched after preliminary scientific tests showed the viruses found at theBernard Matthews farm in Suffolk may be identical to the one behind the recent outbreaks in Hungary.
Last month the deadly H5N1 virus re-appeared in Hungary, infecting a 3,000-strong flock ofdomestic geese at a farm in the South-East of the country. Hungary put restrictions on the movementand sale of poultry outside the affected areas as mandated by the EU. The EU did not impose a tradeban the whole country.
Bernard Matthews has a processing plant in Hungary near the outbreak area and regularlytransports the meat to the UK plant, which is near its Suffolk plant. Defra said its investigationwill include looking into "arrangements" at the company's adjacent plant for foodprocessing.
"Along with a number of other hypotheses Defra, the Food Standards Agency and the HealthProtection Agency are investigating the possibility of a link between the Hungarian outbreaks,poultry meat from Hungary and the introduction of disease in the farm in Suffolk," Defra stated.
The discovery of the outbreak at the Bernard Matthews' Suffolk production site occurred last week. About 2,600 turkeys had died of the H5N1 virus before authorities closed off the site. They completed culling about 160,000 birds on 5 February.
Defra's deputy chief veterinary Fred Landeg said Bernard Matthews have voluntarily agreed totemporarily suspend the movement of poultry products between their outlets in the UK and Hungaryuntil the investigation is complete.
"Our investigations have shown that one possible route of infection is poultry productimported from Hungary," he said. "It is important that this is investigatedthoroughly, along with all the other possible routes."
Meanwhile the Daily Telegraph reported today that the Bernard Matthews' plant had been importingabout 38 tonnes of partly processed birds from Hungary every week by lorry.
A spokesperson for the company could not be reached by press time.
In a previous statement Bernard Matthews said none of the affected poultry had entered the food chain,therefore making it unnecessary to recall or withdraw any products or to issue refunds. Poultry meatfrom the company were "perfectly safe to eat", according to the statement.
The company produces about eight million turkeys every year in the UK, rearing them on 57farms throughout Norfolk, Suffolk and Lincolnshire. It also provides retailers with a variety ofdifferent frozen, fresh and chilled branded products from its processing centres. The company also hasproduction sites in Germany and Hungary.
While the UK's regulators are advising the public that the risk of H5N1 being transmitted frompoultry to humans was "extremely low", they can take heed of what happened last year inEurope, when a number of countries were affected by outbreaks. Due to a decline in consumption andexports due to the disease, some EU members were forced last year to stockpile supplies, leading toa glut in the market.
The last UK bird flu scare took place in Scotland in March last year, when H5N1 was found in adead wild swan. Then, chicken sales growth slowed by 10 per cent though consumption bounced back within a fewmonths, according to ACNielsen UK.
A survey released last month by the market analyst found that 78 per cent of consumers worldwidethink bird flu will have a negative impact on the economy. However, the online survey of 25,000 respondents in 45 countriesfound that only one in ten would eat less poultry as a result of the threat. About 57 of consumerssaid they are concerned about the safety of their food.
The UK's uncooked poultry market is worth £2.3bn a year and continues to grow at 2.6 per centannual rate, according to ACNielsen. The UK exported 271,000 tonnes of poultry meat worth £220.4m in the 12 months to October 2006, according to the British Poultry Council.
Of the value £31.1m were earned from exports of turkey meat alone, the bulk of which goes to other European countries. About 90 per cent of the poultry meat consumed in the UK is produceddomestically.
Ireland, Russia, Hong Kong, South Africa, South Korea and Japan have banned UK poultry meat, livebirds and hatching eggs. Defra has also said that it is in the process of confirming whether Indiahas also imposed a ban. Other countries could also impose bans as the UK has now lost its"disease free" status under International Health Organisation rules.
In other news, Turkey is today reporting four children with flu symptoms has been hospitalized asa precaution after an outbreak of H5N1 in a village in southeastern Turkey. An outbreak of H5N1 inTurkey in January 2006 infected 12 people, of whom four died.
The H5N1 strain is usually carried by wild birds and then transmitted to domestic flocks. In rare cases the deadly disease can be transmitted to humans.H5N1 has so far infected 271 people worldwide, of whom 166 have died, mainly in Asia.
The UK outbreak represents the largest incident of avian influenza in a domestic flock in central Europe and a resurgence of the disease. Europe had had no reported cases of avian flu since last August.