Europe's poultry industry could be devastated by the spread of avian influenza, but governments seem to be focusing most of their efforts on fighting a flu pandemic that, for now at least, does not exist. Chris Jones reports from Brussels on how the real message about bird flu is getting lost.

The European media is currently obsessed with the threat of bird flu. Newspaper headlines urge governments to stockpile anti-viral drugs while TV news bulletins carry interviews with government officials warning that tens of thousands of people could die from a possible flu pandemic.

But while bird flu is undoubtedly a threat to Europe, the real cause for concern - its potentially lethal impact on Europe's poultry sector - seems to be getting lost amid the hubbub over its less clear-cut effect on human health.

Minimal risk to general public

For the global pandemic that is taking up so many column inches to occur, the bird flu virus would have to mutate and combine with a human flu virus to create a new strain, against which we would have no natural defence. But bird flu in its own right is unlikely to prove much of a danger, as Zsuzsanna Jakab, director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, underlined last week.

"Very few humans have actually caught flu from infected birds in Asia - hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of people there have been exposed to infected birds but so far only 120 human case have been reported," she stressed. Those at the greatest risk are ironically, the veterinary health officials involved in culling the thousands of infected birds in Romania, Turkey, Greece and Russia; the risk to the general public is minimal.

But it is the public's reaction to bird flu - and to the threat of a pandemic - that is likely to be key to the future of Europe's 10 billion tonne poultry sector. Despite repeated assurances from veterinary and public health officials that there is no reason to stop eating poultry meat, sales in many countries are already beginning to fall.

Chicken sales in freefall

For example, farmers' organisation Coldiretti reports that chicken sales are already down by 32 per cent in Italy - one the EU's biggest producers of poultry meat with sales of 1.1 billion tonnes in 2004, according to Eurostat - while in France volumes have dropped 20% in a week, according to the retailers' trade association FCD (Fédération des entreprises du Commerce et de la Distribution).

Most worryingly, sales have begun to fall even though there are still no cases of bird flu in any country within the EU. A Europe-wide outbreak would mean the culling of millions of birds, a major blow to the industry. But combine this with a drop in consumption caused by fears of a flu pandemic and the results could be devastating. European poultry sales fell by 2% in 2003 after one relatively small outbreak of avian influenza in the Netherlands; the impact of a pan-European outbreak is unimaginable.

Brussels failing to reassure consumers

With so much at stake, it is reassuring that the European Commission has acted swiftly to stop the spread of avian flu. But Brussels must also take some of the blame for the mixed messages.

Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner Markos Kyprianou has repeatedly sought to reassure consumers of the limited threat to human health from the avian virus, but his claim that "fewer than half" of the member states had enough anti-virals to cope with a potential flu pandemic proved far more interesting to the headline writers.

Kyprianou's spokesman told just-food last week: "The commission is trying to tread the fine line between informing people in Europe that this is at the moment an animal health situation, an avian influenza virus that has some potential to infect people who come into contact with infected birds.

"But at the same time we have a responsibility to warn people that there is a real possibility of a flu pandemic. We are not seeking to be alarmist, but we are fulfilling what we see as our duty to help member states to prepare and coordinate their efforts."

Farmers acting with extreme caution

Yet even the commission's precautionary measures could have an impact. Authorities in Germany and the Netherlands have already ordered all poultry to be kept indoors to stop the spread of the disease from wild to domestic birds, and free-range producers are warning that similar moves across the EU would severely reduce their income.

In France, where 10% of all poultry is free-range, farmers are concerned that if they are forced to keep birds indoors they would no longer be allowed to use the Label Rouge name - a premium brand worth some €480m (US$573m) a year.
And in the UK, where 37% of laying chickens and 2-3% of chickens bred for meat are free-range, the Soil Association has warned that it would no longer be able to give its organic seal of approval to birds forced indoors for any extended length of time.

So treading the thin line between coping with the real threat of avian flu and preparing for the potential threat of a human flu pandemic will be no easy task for the European Commission. But it must above all ensure that its efforts to protect all of Europe's citizens from the human virus do not come at the expense of those citizens whose livelihoods depend on keeping the birds safe as well.