Embattled poultry firm Bernard Matthews said that sales have dropped by 40%  in the aftermath of this month's bird flu outbreak at its Suffolk plant.

It is now temporarily releasing up to 500 of its workers as a result of the continuing uncertainty that has followed the outbreak.

The company has said that 130 workers at their Norfolk site would be stood down tomorrow (20 February) for 20 days, with up to 500 more temporary lay-offs in the next few weeks. The laid-off workers have been granted some statutory payments, and a one-off payment of GBP100 (US$194.9) per worker.

The Transport and General Workers Union (T&G), which announced the cuts this afternoon (19 February), has urged the UK government to play its part in compensating the poultry workers, in a similar way that the Spanish and Italian governments did after H5N1 outbreaks.

T&G regional industrial organiser Miles Hubbard said: "The workforce has displayed real resilience during the last couple of difficult weeks and is determined to work for a positive future for the company. The union is determined to do everything it can to defend our members' interests."

Restrictions were placed around Bernard Matthews' turkey processing plant near Lowestoft, Suffolk, after the H5N1 avian influenza strain was detected there.

Last Friday, the poultry firm was cleared of breaking European import regulations by Defra and the FSA, who said the most likely cause of the bird flu outbreak was poultry imported to the UK from Hungary.

A spokesperson for Bernard Matthews told just-food: "This was a very difficult decision to make but under the current circumstances it was the only option available following the drop in product sales. We are also doing everything we can to limit the number of job losses and we are working hard to restore consumer confidence."