- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2007

LONDON (AP) — Britain is confronting Europe’s biggest outbreak of bird flu with a massive slaughter of turkeys, and worried consumers are asking whether the disease will strike humans next.

Experts are trying to spread the word that conditions in Britain are so different from Asia and Africa that the chance of human infection is infinitesimal. They also stress that no human bird flu cases have been traced to eating properly cooked poultry or eggs.

“At the moment in the United Kingdom, the general public still have more chance of winning the lottery than getting bird flu,” said Jim Robertson, a virologist at Britain’s national institute for biological standards and control.

For Bernard Matthews PLC, whose turkeys were infected by the H5N1 strain at its Suffolk farm, the economic consequences could be devastating. Britain’s largest poultry producer has had to slaughter 159,000 turkeys and, while the company refuses to release a figure, analysts say damages could run into the millions of dollars if the problem is not quickly solved.

Sales may also be hurt, not only at Bernard Matthews, but also throughout a poultry industry worth an estimated $6.7 billion a year in Britain.

Ireland, Russia and Macedonia joined Japan in banning British poultry imports, and the Netherlands and Norway ordered restrictions on commercial poultry over the weekend. Farmers in the Netherlands were told to keep their birds indoors or behind chicken wire and protective netting.

Bernard Matthews has an annual turnover worth $783 million; like other poultry producers, it is working to reassure consumers that eating fowl is safe.

Three of Britain’s major supermarket chains have thus far reported no change in poultry or egg sales since the H5N1 outbreak.

But previous bird-flu outbreaks in Europe have hit the market hard. After an outbreak on a French farm last year, poultry consumption in France fell by 30 percent. And in Romania, which has had repeated H5N1 outbreaks, consumption dropped by nearly 80 percent.

Charles Bourns, chairman of the National Farmers’ Union poultry board, urged shoppers not to boycott poultry. “Just keep eating chicken and enjoying it,” he said. “There is no danger from it. This is a disease of chickens and not of humans.”

A total of 2,500 turkeys were killed last week by the H5N1 virus. Health authorities have imposed restrictions and surveillance zones around the farm, requiring that poultry be isolated from wild birds and restricting movement in and out of the zones.

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