Avian influenza continues to spread in the EU's largest poultry producer, with the country's agriculture ministry reporting over the weekend that the highly pathogenic type H5N1 had been detected in a dead wild swan in the Camargue wetlands.
The march of avian influenza across Europe has heightened the public's fears over the safety of the bloc's poultry. Poultry consumption has plunged in many EU member states, by up to 70 per cent in some countries.
Scientists are worried that the H5N1 form of the virus, which can be transmitted from poultry to humans, may mutate so that it can be transmitted from human to human and start a influenza pandemic.
The Camargue is a major watering site for pink flamingos and is located near the mouth of the Rhone river as it feeds into the Mediterranean.
The Ministry of Agriculture said in a statement that the dead swan was found in Saint-Mitre-les-Ramparts, near Marseille. A wild duck was also found in Ain, near Switzerland. Both birds were found dead on 28 February.
The discovery marks the further spread of the virus in France In France, a turkey farm was affected, with the mass die-off of a large proportion of the farm's 11,000 birds. This marked the first time the virus had spread to domestic birds in the EU.
France's food safety agency AFSSA confirmed last Thursday it had found 11 new cases in wild birds in the Ain department. That brings the total number of cases in Ain to 29. The government has enlarged its surveillance zone in the area.
More than 40 countries around the world have banned French poultry imports, including Thailand and South Korea close to where the bird flu H5N1 strain first emerged. The US has only banned poultry imports from the Ain region so far.
France is also the world's fourth largest poultry exporter, behind the US, China and Brazil. France's poultry exports are worth about €983m per year.
Poultry consumption in France has fallen sharply, between 20 and 30 per cent according to the country's poultry association, APVF. Some producers have resorted to offering a second chicken free to those who buy one.
In other related news on the spread of H5N1 in Europe, Sweden became the first Scandinavian country to report the detection of the virus in wild birds. The strain was found in two tufted wild ducks. Protection and surveillance zones have been set up around the area where the birds were found, in line with measures applied in other EU countries, the government reported.
This brings the total number of European Union countries currently affected to nine: Sweden, France, Slovakia, Slovenia, Italy, Greece, Austria, Hungary and Germany.
Germany has also reported the spread of the virus in the wild bird population, with several regions reporting dead birds infected with the H5N1 influenza virus.
In the last few days, a cat on the northern German island of Rügen, where wild birds with H5N1 infections have been found, was also found dead, and tested positive for H5N1. This unusual finding has resulted in all cats being required to be kept indoors on Rügen. Cats are known to be at risk of HPAI avian influenza.
So far, no human cases have ever been associated with exposure to felines, and no outbreaks in felines have been reported, although sporadic cases have been reported in Asia and Iraq. This finding of an infected cat in Germany does not imply any change in the virus, the European Commission reported.
Switzerland has also just announced the finding of H5N1 in two wild ducks, one near Lake Geneva, and one near Lake Constance. Switzerland is also applying the same control measures as EU countries.
Affected EU member states are implementing strict protection and surveillance zones around the location where H5N1 infected wild birds have been found. In addition, the EU has approved the vaccination of bird flocks in certain areas of the Netherlands and France.
Vaccination is being permitted in selected southern areas of France that are believed to be at risk from avian influenza. The free-range ducks and geese in this region are not easy to put 'indoors' and are therefore at risk of contact with wild birds that may be carrying the virus, according to an European Commission repot.
The vaccination programme will begin immediately and will continue until 1 April 2006. Sentinel birds, which are unvaccinated control birds, will be used as part of the monitoring for avian influenza.
Vaccinated poultry, their hatching eggs and day-old chicks cannot be exported or moved to any third country, including countries in the EU. There are strict
conditions on the movement of vaccinated birds within France. Fresh meat and meat products from vaccinated poultry will be able to be sold in the EU, provided the safety conditions have been complied with by the farm.
The steady creep of avian influenza toward the heart of the EU is feeding into consumers' fears about their health and the safety of the bloc's poultry flocks. Earlier this year, four children died in Turkey, the first ever confirmed deaths of humans due to bird flu outside of Asia. The deaths and the encroachment into the EU's borders makes for a dismal prognosis for poultry processors who face both a narrowing of their supply sources and a fall in consumption demand.
The emergence of the disease on a global scale is expected to cause a "steady erosion" of gains in poultry consumption and prices in many countries this year, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation warned last week.
The FAO said consumer fears have already begun to push down prices, despite statements that poultry is safe to eat if handled and cooked properly.