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Letter from the Soil Association about vaccination, Bird Flu and FMD.

27 October 2005

The Rt. Hon. Tony Blair
Prime Minister
10 Downing Street
London  SW1A 2AA

I am writing to you seeking an urgent meeting to discuss your Governmentís current and proposed actions and control strategies concerning any potential outbreaks of avian influenza (bird flu) in the UK.  Please find enclosed the Soil Associationís latest briefings to our organic poultry producers and for the public. In particular, I would like to draw your attention to the briefing on vaccination and our related press release.

Whilst officials at Defra have worked closely with our dedicated team of specialists and producer representatives dealing with avian influenza, I am concerned that pressure emanating from the media and other commentators may be bearing down on policy-makers and closing off options for currently viable and positive measures that science and sense suggests should be considered.  I am referring particularly to the possible use of vaccination in the form of ring-vaccination to contain any initial outbreaks that occur. This strategy has proven to be successful in other countries, such as Hong Kong, which suffered a series of outbreaks before 2003. Other EU member states, such as Spain have stockpiles of poultry vaccine effective for this strain of avian influenza, as has the US.  Both the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) endorse the use of vaccination to control avian influenza.

You will remember the Soil Association made similar representations during the Foot & Mouth outbreak and we were pleased to receive such a positive reception and good understanding of the issues from yourself at the time. Unfortunately, pressure apparently from commercial interests and the National Farmers Union (which I know you are aware does not represent all farmers and certainly not the majority of organic farmers) persuaded ministers and officials to adopt a control strategy based on mass-culling with the consequent grim media coverage of burning pyres of animals, distraught farmers, and huge costs to the taxpayer. I have a worrying sense of deja-vu that we may be set to go down a similar path of unnecessary slaughter and suffering that in hindsight, like FMD, is seen to have been the wrong path.

The Soil Association is 100% committed to supporting necessary and proportionate measures to protect human health and maintain the well being of all poultry producers. However, we are concerned that moving to wholesale housing of flocks now, followed by a control strategy based on mass- culling will destroy one of the few success stories in agriculture, with 37% of UK laying birds being free-range or organic and generating burgeoning consumer support for their higher welfare standards.

I look forward to meeting with you to discuss this urgent matter.

Patrick Holden