Animal health officials are today checking whether any other flocks of poultry could have been exposed to the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu discovered on a free-range turkey farm in East Anglia.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) confirmed there are more than 4 million turkeys, chickens, ducks and geese on the GB Poultry Register within the 10km (6 mile) surveillance zone around the farm in Redgrave, Suffolk.
There are a further 25 million birds registered in the wider restricted area which covers Suffolk and much of Norfolk.
Source of outbreak
Animal health officials are currently trying to find the source of the outbreak and trace any ‘dangerous contact’ with other flocks – through poultry, human or wild bird movement.
But the National Farmers’ Union’s poultry board chairman Charles Bourns said he did not think there was a danger of turkey shortages heading into the busy Christmas period.
‘I think this is a disease on the one farm, and I don’t think it is going to get out and kill 5 million birds, most of which are indoors and should have no contact with wild birds,’ he said.
He said the situation was ‘very serious’, but added it was too early to tell if the disease was going to spread.
Potentially deadly strain
Government officials yesterday confirmed that the virus found in birds on the farm in Redgrave was the potentially deadly H5N1 version of the disease.
Acting chief veterinary officer Fred Landeg has said the disease in the latest outbreak is closely related to one found in birds in the Czech Republic and Germany in the summer.
The discovery suggests the virus could have been spread to the UK by wild birds, but animal health experts were keeping an open mind and investigating all the possibilities, he said.
A cull of 5,000 turkeys, more than 1,000 ducks and 500 geese on the infected rearing site at Redgrave Park farm was carrying on today, Defra said.
It began yesterday after the alarm was raised on Sunday by poultry producer Gressingham Foods, based in Woodbridge, Suffolk, following turkey deaths at the farm.
Protection and surveillance zones, set at 3km and 10km respectively, and a wider restricted area covering the whole of Suffolk and much of Norfolk have been put in place.
They restrict the movement of birds and require them to be housed and isolated from wild birds.
A report by Defra into the last outbreak of H5N1 at the Bernard Matthews poultry plant in Holton, Suffolk, in February – also initially blamed wild birds.
But it was later decided the most likely source of the infection was imported turkey meat from Hungary and the RSPB has already warned against jumping to the conclusion that wild birds are responsible.
The infected farm, which is operated by Redgrave Poultry, a subsidiary of Gressingham Foods, has said it was a seasonal operation and had been preparing organic poultry for Christmas.
But the company’s operations director Geoffrey Buchanan stressed that no infected birds from the farm had entered the food chain.
He also said Gressingham Foods imports meat products, as well as day-old poultry from Holland, but said no imported meat or birds had been taken to the infected farm.
The company added that there was a lake at the site with a number of wildfowl on it.
All efforts were being made to keep the poultry and wild birds separate but there were circumstances under which they could come into contact, it said.
H5N1 ‘rarely spreads to people’
Dr Landeg has repeated assurances that although H5N1 can be fatal to humans, it is primarily a bird disease which rarely spreads to people and then only if they have been in close contact with birds.
Environment Secretary Hilary Benn told the House of Commons yesterday that officials were doing their ‘darnedest’ to make sure the disease was contained.
He also said the anti-viral drug Tamiflu had been given to all those involved in the cull, which he warned would take some time to complete.
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