Bernard Matthews faces compensation criticism

Bernard Matthews has been criticised for the compensation payment of nearly £600,000 it is to receive

for the turkeys that were slaughtered after an outbreak of avian influenza (AI) in Suffolk in February.

MPs from all parties have spoken out, with concerns over the Defra payment, which was revealed in the final epidemiology report into the AI outbreak released yesterday. Jack Straw, leader of the House of Commons, said ministers were "uncomfortable" about the sum of money involved, which is for the healthy birds that had to be culled to prevent the spread of disease.

The report sets out the findings of the National Emergency Epidemiology Group, which has been investigating the outbreak in close consultation with the European Commission and the Hungarian authorities. The final report is a detailed analysis of all possible ways the virus could have arrived at the farm in Holton, Suffolk, but reaches no firm conclusions. The likeliest source of infection, it says, is meat imported from an infected flock in Hungary.

Bernard Matthews yesterday called for further testing of wild birds in the UK to try and find definitive answers and reiterated its claims that it was not guilty of biosecurity breaches. An earlier Defra report highlighted problems with seagulls carrying scraps of meat around the Suffolk farm and said bins were left uncovered and barns had holes big enough for rats and birds to enter. Bernard Matthews said yesterday it has always maintained biosecurity standards.

But this did not stop ministers linking criticism of the payment with the complaints about biosecurity. Shadow environment secretary Peter Ainsworth said: "Bearing in mind that there must have been a serious failure of biosecurity at the Bernard Matthews plant, many people will be astonished that no-one will be held responsible for the outbreak. Instead, the company will receive £589,356.89 in compensation."

Chris Huhne, environment spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "Giving over tax payers' money will cause anger unless the business is held to account for its lapses."

While the report reached no firm conclusions, it offered a useful insight into the virus, said chief veterinary officer Debby Reynolds: "The epidemiology investigation is an important part of increasing our understanding of AI. Most potential routes of infection are controlled through current procedures. However, the outbreak in Suffolk appears to be the outcome of a series of normally low probability events and circumstances, which cumulatively led to the introduction of disease.

"This report illustrates the importance of effective biosecurity for all food business operators, as there is a continuous low level risk of introduction of avian influenza to the UK."

Defra has confirmed that Bernard Matthews will receive reimbursement of £589,356.89 for the clinically healthy birds compulsorily killed to prevent disease spread, as required by the Animal Health Act 1981. Defra said payments act as an incentive to report disease early.

Minister for animal health Ben Bradshaw said: "I would like to thank all those who have worked so hard to provide such a comprehensive report. I would also like to thank the Hungarian authorities for their co-operation and all of those who did such a brilliant job of containing and eradicating the outbreak in Suffolk.

"Although we cannot be sure how the outbreak happened, this episode reflects the need for constant vigilance, high levels of biosecurity and robust and well developed contingency planning in dealing with animal disease outbreaks."

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