Turkeys may not get to vote for Christmas
The highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1 outbreak started on 27 October 2021. At the beginning of November there were 230 cases in England, of which 96 instances have been confirmed since 1 October 2022.
The latest cases confirmed in commercial premises were in Lancashire, Lincolnshire and North Yorkshire. In each situation a 3km protection zone and 10km surveillance zone have been put in place around the premises and all poultry and captive birds will be humanely culled.
Mandatory housing measures for all poultry and captive birds are to be introduced to all areas of England from Monday 7 November 2022. This extends the measures already in force in Suffolk, Norfolk and parts of Essex, which have been badly affected. It is hoped that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will follow suit.
The UK’s free-range turkey flock has been particularly afflicted, raising concerns over the availability of turkeys for the festive season.
The Government is supporting the poultry industry in a number of ways. It is altering the existing bird flu compensation scheme, allowing compensation to be paid to farmers from the outset of a planned cull rather than at the end. Swifter payments should ease cash flow pressures and create greater certainty.
In consultation with the Food Standards Agency, marketing rules are being varied so that farmers may slaughter turkeys, geese or ducks early so they can be frozen, then defrosted and sold to consumers between 28 November and 31 December. Recognising the potential risks of not cooking poultry properly, there are additional food safety concerns over poultry being frozen, thawed and then sold ‘fresh’.
There is another issue over the very popular free-range eggs. As all birds will be housed indoors from next week, they will no longer be free-range. They may need a special dispensation to be sold as free -range if the eggs are laid inside. The packs may have to be marked accordingly.
The fact that many thousands of seabirds have died from the disease has gained much more media attention than the impact on farmers. The fear is that avian flu may now be endemic in wild birds and the risk of infection will never go away.
Any outbreak is very serious for poultry farmers faced with mandatory culling, an extensive clean-up and delays in restocking. The compensation costs payable by the Government are significant and what has become clear is that Defra may not be adequately staffed to respond to the scale of the outbreak.
There are no easy or quick answers to the avian flu crisis with both vaccination and genetic editing being discussed as potential means of resistance to the many strains of flu which will inevitably emerge in the future.
At a time of rapidly rising food prices and a black hole in Government finances, the escalation of avian flu could hardly have come at a worse time.