Authorities in eastern France have tightened restrictions following the outbreak of bird flu there last week, as the country bids to reassure consumers over poultry safety. Meanwhile, the bird flu crisis continues to escalate in Europe and Asia.

On Sunday, a 10-day ban on people visiting the lakes in the Dombes region where dead swans and ducks, now being tested for the H5N1 strain of bird flu which has killed other poultry and wild birds in the area, had been found. Flights of small pleasure aircraft were also banned because they tend to scatter wild bird flocks.

The outbreak in France dampened the mood at a major agricultural fair being held in Paris. At the opening of the show, President Chirac said: “There is no danger in consuming poultry and eggs. There is no reason to provoke panic. That is just outrageous.”

However, in spite of the fact that, as Chirac pointed out, the virus can be killed by cooking, the French commercial poultry market has been badly hit. Domestic consumption was already down by 30% at the weekend before confirmation on Saturday that the outbreak that had killed 400 turkeys in eastern France was H5N1.

Other European countries that have so far reported outbreaks of bird flu include  Austria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Slovakia and Slovenia.

With a total production of 700m birds a year, creating annual sales of EUR6bn (US$7bn), France is the fourth biggest exporter of poultry after the US, China and Brazil. The biggest importers of French poultry are Germany, the UK, Belgium, Luxembourg and Saudi Arabia.

Japan and Hong Kong moved quickly to ban the import of French poultry and poultry products, which of course includes the country’s renowned foie gras.

Following the announcement of a Japanese ban late on Friday, Hong Kong’s Food, Environmental and Hygiene Department followed suit at the weekend, suspending all poultry imports from France until further notice. “We will be in contact with the French authorities and follow up the situation,” a government spokesman was quoted as saying.

Japan’s ban also extended to poultry and poulty-related products. The country is a major consumer of foie gras and France accounts for around half of the foie gras sold there.

Meanwhile, in India thousands of workers in the poultry industry have been laid off as demand plummeted following the country’s first case of bird flu last week. The H5N1 bird flu strain was detected in Navapur in the western Maharashtra state, resulting in a cull of more than 200,000 chickens.

India’s poultry business is a growing US$13.6bn industry and losses in the sector are already mounting.

The bird flu crisis sparked protests in Egypt on Sunday when hundreds of poultry breeders and retailers demonstrated against rumoured government plans to allow more imports of frozen fowl, and to continue culling Egyptian birds following an outbreak of bird flu. However, there have so far been no human cases in Egypt or in India.

In spite of the H5N1 outbreak in Thailand which has resulted in 14 human fatalities, the country’s leading poultry exporter Charoen Pokphand Foods (CPF) said bullishly today that it still expected cooked chicken exports to jump by 30% this year.

“We are not worried about bird flu because all our exports are well cooked. Instead of a decline in demand, we are seeing strong demand for our products in Japan and Europe,” said a company spokeswoman.

Raw poultry exports from Thailand have been banned internationally since the first outbreak of H5N1 in January 2004. Thailand has also recently imposed 90-day bans on poultry imports from seven European countries.

In addition to devastating poultry flocks in Asia and latterly in Europe, the H5N1 bird flu strain has killed at least 92 people, mostly in Asia, since 2003, according to World Health Organisation data.