With the media and scientists touting the possibility that avian flu could migrate to the EU from Russia, the chicken is facing another round of bad publicity.
If the disease hits here the EU might have to cull entire flocks to stop the disease from spreading and infecting humans, raising not only a supply problem for food processors, but also a drop inconsumption due to consumers fears.
European consumers are increasing concerned about food safety, mainly due to the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) scare in cattle, a foot and mouth disease outbreak in 2001 and of avian fluin 2003. In the EU poultry consumption overtook demand for beef and veal in 1996, when BSE hit the headlines.
Chicken is the main source of food poisoning in Europe. Recent studies in the UK showing high incidences of bacterial contamination in chicken at the retail level and an outbreak of food poisoningcaused by chickens in Spain this month has heightened safety concerns over the bird.
An alarm is now spreading across European countries as worries mount that a virulent form of bird flu could spread westwards from Siberia. Experts are saying that the H5N1 form of the virus couldspread into the poultry population here, carried by migratory fowl.
At its worse the influenza virus could infect and kill humans, transmitted through the wild bird population and by farmed poultry.
A European Commission spokesperson told FoodProductionDaily.com that the EU'stechnical experts are gathering in Brussels tomorrow morning to discuss what precautionary measures should be taken to protect humans and poultry production within the bloc.
Right now the Commission is playing down the disease saying that the risk to the EU is very small.
Some European countries are already making preparations in advance. The Netherlands, with a memory of what avian flu did to their economy in 2003, this week ordered farmers to move all commercialchickens and turkeys indoors or to outdoor pens that would prevent contact with wild birds.
Bird flu struck the Netherlands struck in 2003, killing a vet and infecting another 1,000 people. The disease was contained following the destruction of about 30 million poultry.
Germany also said it might implement a similar plan, to be activated if bird flu arrives in Europe.
In the UK officials are meeting with farmers to lay down the groundwork for an action plan restricting the movement of pigs as well as poultry. The UK media say scientists fear that pigs can act ascarriers of the various strains of the bird flu. Defra, the country's environment department, also met with industry bodies yesterday.
The last outbreak of avian flu in Britain was detected in a flock of turkeys in Norfolk in 1992 but was quickly contained.
From late July 2005, the H5N1 virus has expanded its geographical range westwards, according to a report by the World Health Organisation. Russia and Kazakhstan reported outbreaks of avianinfluenza in poultry in late July. Both countries confirmed the outbreak as the H5N1 strain of the virus in early August.
Deaths in migratory birds, infected with the virus, have also been reported. Outbreaks in both countries have been attributed to contact between domestic birds and wild waterfowl via shared watersources.
These are the first outbreaks of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza recorded in the two countries. Both countries were previously considered free of the virus. The H5N1 strain can be passedfrom birds to humans. The strain has killed about 50 people in Asia since late 2003.
Since the initial reports, the Russian H5N1 outbreak in poultry, which has remained confined to Siberia, has spread progressively westward to affect six administrative regions.
To date, outbreaks in the two countries have involved some large farms as well as small backyard flocks, with close to 120,000 birds dead or destroyed in Russia and about 9,000 affected inKazakhstan.
In south-east Asian countries, where outbreaks are now known to have begun in mid-2003, about 150 million birds have either died from the virus or were culled.