Sunday, February 11, 2007

UK : Has Bird Flu Entered The Human Food Chain?

A remarkably lacklustre approach from the British government following claims that H5N1 infected turkey meat may have found its way onto UK supermarket shelves.

The relevant government department clearly states that infected turkey meat poses no threat to a human consumer, citing "no evidence" of people becoming infected with the virus in countries like Indonesia from eating poultry.

And yet, the governments of Indonesia, Vietnam and China, along with the United Nations, issued stark warnings in 2005 and 2006 that any poultry that may have even come into contact with H5N1 infected birds should be cooked until there was absolutely no pink meat left. Even better, poultry meat should be boiled or steamed for twice or three times as long as normal.

So why no such warning from the British government, or the Bernard Mathews company, on two of whom's farms (in Suffolk, England and in Hungary) H5N1 infected poultry have been discovered? Clearly, both entities would be aware of the procedures for cooking poultry issued by the governments of other (Asian) countries who've suffered outbreaks of bird flu.

At the moment, at least twelve countries have been imports of poultry meat or products from the United Kingdom.

From the UK Independent :

The avian flu virus that led to the culling of 160,000 birds on a Bernard Matthews turkey farm may have entered the human food supply, Government food safety experts admitted yesterday.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) said it was investigating the possibility as part of a wider inquiry into the outbreak on the farm at Holton in Suffolk. There was no threat to human health, the FSA said.

The most likely cause of the outbreak is now believed to be frozen poultry pieces imported from Hungary, which may have been contaminated with the virus, to a processing plant next to the Suffolk farm.

Professor Sir David King, the Government's chief scientist said packaged turkey meat could be removed from supermarket shelves following the disclosure. "I think that is exactly what the Food Standards Agency will be looking at now," he told Channel 4 News.

The FSA confirmed it was investigating but said it had no plans at present to recall turkey products. A spokesman said: "Even if infected poultry had entered the food chain, and we don't know that yet, it is not a human health risk. There is not one case round the world in which humans have contracted the disease from eating infected meat."

As the scare threatened to engulf Bernard Matthews' £400m business in the UK, he postponed an appointment at Buckingham Palace where he was due to receive a CVO (Commander of the Victorian Order) from the Queen yesterday for his charity work.

Earlier Professor King said the H5N1 virus identified in the outbreak was identical to the strain in the Hungarian outbreak on a goose farm in Szentes last month. Thousands of geese were destroyed. The "most likely scenario" was that the virus was brought into the UK by dead poultry rather than wild birds as had originally been thought, he said.

Both the Environment Secretary David Miliband and a Bernard Matthews spokesman had previously ruled out any link with the Hungarian outbreak.

Bernard Matthews has a processing plant at Sarvar in southern Hungary from where tonnes of poultry pieces - plucked, cut and frozen - are imported to the Suffolk plant each week.

One consignment arrived a few days before 27 January, when the first signs of illness were seen among turkey chicks on the Suffolk farm. The outbreak on the goose farm in Szentes , Hungary, started on 19 January. Vets said the virus could survive for "several days" in a carcass and for longer if it was frozen.

Speaking following a meeting of Cobra, the Government's emergency committee,the Environment Minister Ben Bradshaw said: "Bernard Matthews have been open with us about that but we need to investigate that further. We are investigating reports that there may have been some bio-security breaches at the plant."

Is turkey, and other forms of poultry, safe to eat?

The Food Standards Agency insists that it is. We do not know for sure that infected meat is on the supermarket shelves. Even if it is, infected poultry "is not a human health risk" when consumed, the agency says.

The virus is transmitted from bird to bird through infected faeces and the gut. That cannot happen in humans - we lack the necessary receptors for the virus in our gut.

What is the inquiry focusing on?

Bernard Matthews, the company, has some very serious questions to answer about its bio-security - both in the UK and Hungary. If the virus was imported in infected poultry meat, as suspected, how did the poultry get infected in Hungary?

One suggestion is that a slaughterhouse close to the outbreak of avian flu on a goose farm in Hungary, may provide a link. Once the frozen poultry pieces arrived at the Suffolk processing plant in the UK, how did the virus get from the plant to the sheds where the turkey chicks were being reared? Traces of the virus have been found in three of the 22 sheds. One theory is wild birds or rats could have eaten the infected meat and transmitted the virus to the sheds.

Did the Government or Bernard Matthews withold information from the public about the outbreak?

Both deny it. The company said that no live birds had been imported from Hungary but did not mention that poultry meat was imported. Ministers say they had been told that the imported poultry was from outside the exclusion zone imposed in Hungary around the outbreak on the goose farm and that "the importation of poultry from an EU country is a legitimate business.

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