As avian influenza spreads slowly around the world there are some horror stories emerging about consumer reaction. Reports of sharp drops in poultry consumption are coming out of countries where the disease has hit. There have even been falls in sales in some European countries, but the British industry thinks it can avoid a major problem. Chris Lyddon reports.

“The poultry industry in Kamataka took a hit on Tuesday as the offtake of chicken fell as much as 50% and prices plunged in major markets across the state after 12,000 birds were found dead in Shimoga on Monday,” the Indian Business Standard newspaper reported on 22 February.

From Pakistan the Daily Times newspaper reported a 30% drop in chicken meat sales in Lahore, although prices were stable as retailers refused to make cuts. In an article carried on 23 March it quoted Raza Mehmood Khursand, chairman of the Pakistan Poultry Association, as saying that there was no problem in eating chicken meat and eggs despite the confirmation of bird flu in Pakistan, but the paper also reported that restaurants were switching to beef and mutton.

In Britain there has been little effect so far. Peter Bradnock, chief executive of the British Poultry Council, told “There has been [an impact] in certain other member states where they’ve had an outbreak or have found wild birds with avian flu,” he said. “Italian sales are down by about 25%. French sales are down 15 to 20% at the moment.”

One reason for the difference is that Britain has not yet had an outbreak in flocks or wild birds, but the structure of the UK market also helps. “The distribution system in this country is different,” Bradnock said. “Most poultry meat is sold through the big five retailers. Most of that is retailer own label. Consumers trust the retailers in this country.”

“Also, we are quite lucky to have the Food Standards Agency, which is trusted by consumers and the media as well to give independent advice,” he said. “That is another factor why we have come out relatively unsullied.”

Another factor which has helped the industry is increased consumer sophistication. “The consumer is much more intelligent than a lot of people who are selling newspapers give them credit for,” he said, pointing out that many people can now get information direct from, for example the World Health Organisation or the European Food Safety Authority. “You can see what the consumer organisations are saying,” he said. “You don’t have to rely on the Daily Mail or the Daily Express. Newspapers must be aware that what they say can be more easily corroborated or found out.”

Peter Bradnock believes that the poultry industry can handle an outbreak of avian influenza. “We believe if it were to get here and get into poultry flocks we would be able to identify it and stamp it out very quickly,” he said. “It’s not another foot and mouth scenario.” There is history to back up this view. “We’ve had avian influenza,” he said “The last time was in 1991. It was on one farm and it was contained and stamped out.”

“Our past experience of this type of diseases is that they can be dealt with quickly,” he said. “It’s not going to creep up on us.  Everybody’s on a very high state of vigilance.”