The UK’s first outbreak of H5N1 avian influenza since 1991 has placed bird flu firmly in the spotlight. Did the government and company involved move react quickly enough? Katy Humphries reports.

With accusations that the government and Bernard Matthews did not identify and respond to the disease quickly enough dominating the headlines, the company spoke to just-food yesterday (5 February) about how it dealt with the epidemic and the implications the disease may have on the food industry.

Following confirmation that the H5N1 virus was present in the carcases of birds found dead at the Bernard Matthews turkey farm near Lowestoft, Suffolk, 159,000 birds were promptly culled and their carcases incinerated.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has enforced a Restricted Zone of approximately 2,090 square kilometres around the farm, a Protection Zone of three kilometres in radius and a Surveillance Zone of ten kilometres around the premises.

Movement restrictions have been imposed and measures to isolate domestic poultry from wild birds have been implemented. The national general licence on bird gatherings has been revoked and bird shows and pigeon racing have been banned.

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A thorough and timely response from Bernard Matthews and the government? Many commentators think not.

Bernard Matthews has been criticised for its delay in notifying Defra, having discovered the first dead birds on Tuesday but failing to notify the authorities until Thursday.

Likewise, the media has slated Defra’s response speed. While the department was informed of the outbreak on Thursday, it did not collect samples until Friday, the positive result didn’t come back until Sunday morning and it then took until Sunday evening to impose an exclusion zone.

However, Bernard Matthews has denied allegations that it was slow to act. Although 50 birds died on Tuesday, the company said that it only became clear that there was a problem on Wednesday when a further 180 birds died. Having initially suspected E.coli as the cause of the deaths, the company’s vet concluded that the disease was unidentifiable on Thursday and Bernard Matthews then made the decision to alert Defra.

“All proper procedures were followed and we responded accordingly in good time. The company meets and in many cases far exceeds Defra’s biosecurity standards for combating avian flu,” Bernard Matthews spokesperson Jade Atkinson told just-food. “We have been in constant contact with all of our staff, reassuring them that we have all the required measures in place for those who handle poultry,” she added.

Likewise, the UK government has defended its handling of the H5N1 outbreak. Environment minister Ben Bradshaw told parliament yesterday that there had not been delays at the Suffolk farm. Giving an update to MPs yesterday afternoon, Bradshaw told the House of Commons that he was satisfied that the response to the outbreak had been “rapid, well coordinated and appropriate”.

Under the 1981 Animal Health Act Bernard Matthews is entitled to compensation for all healthy birds slaughtered to control diseases such as avian flu. However, no compensation will be paid for the birds that died of avian flu and the company will have to shoulder the cost of the clean-up to ensure the farm is free of the disease. According to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), turkey is selling at a market price of GBP1.69 (US$3.33) per kilogram, meaning that the cull alone could cost in the region of GBP500,000.

Bernard Matthews told just-food that it was unwilling to discuss the direct costs of the outbreak “as it is commercially sensitive”.

However, the direct cost of the outbreak is likely to be far overshadowed by losses in sales and international trade that could be set to hit the UK poultry industry as a whole, with Japan and Russia reportedly already suspending imports of British poultry.

Expectations about the effect that the outbreak of bird flu will have on sales of poultry products vary considerably. Bernard Matthews told just-food that it was optimistic that the news will have a negligible impact on sales of its turkey and poultry products. “Initial reactions show consumers understand this has been contained and poses no risk to consumers. We’re confident sales in poultry will be largely unaffected,” Atkinson said.

Aside from posting a notice stating that it is safe to eat Bernard Matthews products on its website and reassuring consumers that diseased birds did not make their way into the food chain, Bernard Matthews said that it is not currently planning any action to prevent a decline in sales. “We’re confident that sales of poultry will be largely unaffected and therefore don’t plan any activity,” Atkinson confirmed.

However, the NFU is less optimistic in its assessment. “There is a possibility that the outbreak will cause sales in poultry to fall. Even if it’s only a marginal drop, market prices would go down and this could have some very significant consequences for poultry producers,” a spokesperson for the union told just-food.

Last year, when three outbreaks of the less deadly H7N3 virus were detected at farms in Norfolk, UK consumers remained relatively unphased and sales were not greatly reduced, the NFU acknowledged. Nevertheless, the spokesperson added, processors in a relatively low margin industry “felt the pinch” as the UK market was flooded with cheap imports from the continent where bird flu outbreaks had deterred consumers.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) also expressed concern that the bird flu outbreak could dent sales of poultry products. “It is possible that there will be some knock-on effects in terms of sales,” the BRC said.

The UK government has been quick to emphasise that the detection of bird flu in Suffolk does not represent a threat to public health. Although the H5N1 virus has killed 164 people worldwide since January 2003, the majority of cases where the disease has jumped from birds to humans have been in communities where people live in close contact with chickens.