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Defra plans mass cull of poultry if avian flu hits UK

Talks being held over disposal of carcasses
Fears that lethal strain has reached heart of EU
Sandra Laville and Luke Harding
Wednesday October 26, 2005
The Guardian

A mass cull of poultry in the UK is being prepared by Defra officials in meetings with some of the main agricultural firms involved in the clean up and disposal of hundreds of thousands of cattle, pig and sheep carcasses during the foot and mouth epidemic.
The Guardian has learnt that experts from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are holding detailed discussions with contractors about the most appropriate disposal methods should the deadly H5NI form of avian flu reach Britain. Millions of chickens, turkeys and geese could be killed in an official slaughter.
UK farms house around 182m laying hens and broiler chickens and a further 5m turkeys, whose numbers will peak in the next few weeks for Christmas sales. As it plans a cull, Defra is being forced to turn for help to firms it has spent years fighting in disputes over outstanding bills of millions of pounds from the foot and mouth crisis. Arthur Ruttle, director of Ruttle Plant Hire, said officials had met his company several times in the last few weeks. The Chorley-based firm was recently paid 13m plus interest by Defra after taking the department to court over unpaid foot and mouth bills.
The exact scale of any planned cull is unclear but Ruttle was the fourth biggest contractor used in the foot and mouth epidemic, providing plant and manpower to dig disposal pits for 334 farms following the mass slaughter of millions of cattle, sheep and pigs across the UK. "Nothing has been finalised yet and obviously I can't go into all the details of what they are planning," said Mr Ruttle. "As yet they haven't decided whether to bury or burn the poultry carcasses, but what is clear is that any cull of poultry would be easier than cattle, the logistics are much easier because they are smaller animals."
Some leading British vets welcomed the fact that Defra is planning ahead having learned from its mistakes in foot and mouth and bird flu outbreaks in other countries. Bob McCracken, a poultry expert and former president of the British Veterinary Association, said badly handled epidemics of avian flu in America and the Netherlands had resulted in the unnecessary culling of hundreds of thousands of turkeys and chickens.
"When an outbreak is confirmed it's rather late in the day to run around trying to find contractors able to do the work. Hopefully what this means is that if it is detected in domestic poultry it will be spotted early and that should actually reduce the need for a mass cull."
But Robin Maynard, from the Soil Association, condemned any planned cull, saying Defra should be considering stockpiling a vaccine which has been used in Hong Kong rather than considering "medieval" practices like mass slaughter.
Paul van Aarle, from the pharmaceutical firm Intervet, which produces the Nobilis Influenza H5 vaccine said it was an alternative to mass culling. In Hong Kong it was used in an avian influenza control programme and there have been no new bird or human outbreaks since, he said.
News of Defra's plans came as fears grew that the lethal H5NI form of avian flu had reached the heart of the European Union. German vets were yesterday carrying out tests on 35 dead wild geese and ducks discovered over the last two days in a lake in Neuwied, near Bonn, in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate. Experts are waiting for the outcome of tests to see whether the birds had been carrying the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain. In France agriculture officials ordered free range poultry farmed in more than one fifth of the country to be kept inside yesterday over concerns that migratory wildfowl could spread bird flu to the country.
Indonesia confirmed yesterday that a fourth person there had died of bird flu, while China said hundreds of farm geese had died in its latest outbreak.
So far 62 people in Asia have died of bird flu since late 2003 but as yet no human to human mutations of H5NI have been recorded.
European Union vets rubber stamped a month-long ban on the importation of wild birds into Europe yesterday. The move followed the death of a parrot in an Essex quarantine facility which had apparently contracted H5NI from imported Taiwanese birds which were kept in the same air space.
Defra was contacted for a comment but did not respond.
Brett Hammond, 43, is at the centre of the first H5NI virus case in Britain. Yesterday his firm, Pegasus Birds Ltd, in Horndon, Essex, one of the UK's biggest wild bird importers and retailers, hired extra security to patrol its aviaries. The firm has been watched by the RSPCA for several years. In the past Mr Hammond was jailed for not paying 650,000 of VAT. He has declined to comment since a parrot died in quarantine at his firm.

Fears that bird flu may have entered Britain earlier than thought: report


Bird flu may have arrived in Britain earlier than thought, a newspaper said as it revealed the name of a tropical bird centre where a parrot that died from the virus was quarantined.

Government vets are investigating how the bird from South America, which is unaffected by the H5N1 strain of avian flu, contracted the deadly version.

They are exploring a possible Taiwanese link because the parrot, which arrived in Britain on September 16, had been exposed to other birds from Taiwan while in mandatory quarantine.

But Taipei has not reported any domestic cases of the disease and it called the comments by the British authorities "irresponsible".

A British government veterinarian told The Daily Telegraph he could not rule out the possibility that a quarantine facility in Essex, south east England, where the birds had been held, had become contaminated by an earlier import.

The centre, Pegasus Birds, run by a commercial bird importer, may have looked after an earlier batch of birds that could have been carrying a "subclinical" avian flu infection, the newspaper said.

This means one or more of the birds would appear free of disease but because of the stress of being held in quarantine they could have excreted the virus.

Quarantine centres are typically cleaned after each import but the virus may have become airborne and infected the next installment of birds from Taiwan and South America, the newspaper said.

"That is a possibility. All that is being investigated," the veterinarian, whose name was not given, was quoted by The Daily Telegraph as saying.

The newspaper reported that the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the government ministry overseeing the avian flu scare, was checking a consignment of birds that arrived "some time ago" as part of its efforts to trace the origin of the infection.

"We are looking at what went into the quarantine before," the veterinarian said. "We are carefully checking out facts and cross-checking them. It is quite complicated because we are being faced with some conflicting reports."

The government veterinarian added, however, that there was no evidence so-far to suggest Britain's quarantine system had failed.

The Sun tabloid also named Pegasus Birds, owned by long-time bird importer Brett Hammond, as the centre at the heart of Britain's bird flu drama.

But a DEFRA spokesman declined to confirm the reports.

"As a matter of course we always discourage people from approaching any disease site and will therefore not be naming the facility," he said.

"It is not our practice to release personal information of the owner.

"Investigations continue into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of these birds. Until it is completed we are not in a position to comment."

British veterinary officials announced late Sunday that the parrot imported from Surinam had tested positive for H5N1, the strain of bird flu which has killed more than 60 people in Asia since 2003.