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British bird flu outbreak barely scratches sales

(LONDON) - Turkey sales in Britain remain largely unaffected by the discovery of lethal Asian-strain bird flu on a farm, with the public taking the latest health scare in their stride, experts said Tuesday.

Britain's poultry industry feared a plunge in sales after its worst avian influenza outbreak was confirmed Thursday on a turkey farm plant in Holton, eastern England.

However, major supermarket chains said that sales had only suffered a small dip.

"There is the likelihood that there could be an effect on sales and that is really what is going to hit," said Charles Bourne, chairman of the National Farmers' Union (NFU) poultry board.

"If chicken sales drop by five percent, that means we produce 16 million chickens a week in this country and some 800,000 are not wanted.

"That will affect the market and prices will go down. Of course we are concerned," said the official, who rears 57,000 chickens on a farm in Gloucestershire, southwest England.

A British Retail Consortium spokesman added: "It is probable that there will be some knock-on affects in terms of sales.

"But a lot of retailers will start moving to reassure the public of the safety of the product and that will happen over the next couple of days.

"The key thing here is that none of the products actually entered the food supply chain at all."

A cull of 159,000 turkeys was completed Monday after tests confirmed the H5N1 strain of bird flu that has killed at least 160 people -- most of them in southeast Asia -- since late 2003, was present at the Holton farm plant belonging to Bernard Matthews, Europe's biggest turkey producer.

Richard Clarke, news editor of The Grocer magazine, said the bird flu outbreak would not damage the poultry trade in the long term.

"The challenge for industry and retailers will be to manage communications with consumers very carefully," he said.

"They will need to ensure they (consumers) understand there is no risk to human health. Early reports suggest there has not been a major switch away from turkey or poultry, which is evidence that this strategy has worked."

Last year's bird flu scare in Scotland prompted a 10 percent downturn in chicken sales which recovered within a few months, according to market analyst AC Nielsen.

But early indications this time around show that shoppers are not panicking.

Tesco, Britain's biggest retailer, which owns 31.4 percent of the market, recorded a slight dip in sales of both chilled and frozen poultry.

"There hasn't been a huge effect but yes, there is an inevitable dip," she said.

However, other major supermarket chains such as Sainsbury's and ASDA (owned by US giant Wal-Mart) said sales were unchanged.

"Eggs are steady and so is poultry," said an Asda spokeswoman.

They are no different to where we would expect them to be for this time of the month. Customers seem to have faith in their turkey still."

A Sainsbury's spokeswoman said: "Because the UK has been affected later than the rest of the world, UK consumers are wiser than the first time around and know the real risks rather than worrying about it."

An agriculture ministry spokeswoman told AFP that Russia, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, South Africa and Jersey have all imposed bans on the import of British poultry, while Ukraine has also reportedly instituted a temporary ban.

The bans came as the government continued its investigation into how the virus was transferred to domestic turkeys.


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