New bird flu measures pose serious risk to industry

Poultry keepers are now facing “significant threats” to their businesses with the introduction of updated measures to prevent the spread of bird flu. 

In order to reduce the risk, the government enforced a housing order until 28 February. Under the precautions, poultry keepers must keep birds indoors, or separated from wild birds where this is not possible.

On Wednesday, 8 February, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) announced proposals to place mandatory biosecurity measures across the whole of England, including continued compulsory housing or range netting in areas of higher-risk. These areas are those that are located near large coastal or inland bodies of water or where significant wild waterfowl congregate.

In Scotland, the government said a further extension to the avian influenza (AI) Prevention Zone will be implemented until the end of April 2017. Higher-risk areas have not been defined in Scotland, although birds will be allowed out to roam from 28 February if enhanced biosecurity measures are put in place.

Serious effects

The National Farmers Union (NFU) has said the methods will pose a serious threat to free-range poultry businesses.

As a result of the extended housing measures in higher risk areas, producers that label their products as free-range will no longer be able to do so as the birds will be ordered to stay indoors longer than the 12 weeks permitted by European Union law.

“Free-range poultry producers now face significant threats to their business after Defra’s introduction of higher risk areas,” said president of the NFU, Meurig Raymond.

“The affected producers will now lose free-range status from 1 March and this will have a considerable effect on the supply chain.

“Half of the UK’s national flock is free-range, by far the highest percentage of any EU member state, and this will have a serious effect on the British public where demand for free-range has increased significantly over the past 25 years. The NFU will continue to work with industry to help poultry producers prepare for the introduction of higher risk areas and how this will affect their businesses.

“Defra needs to provide clarity specifically on how many free-range birds are affected by the introduction of higher risk areas,” he added.

The union advised producers outside of the higher risk areas to assess the risk of AI on their property and to make a decision on whether or not to continue to house birds or allow them out to range whilst taking precautions to avoid contact with wild birds.

“The NFU has concerns over the complexity that this system brings to the supply chain but the lifting of the housing order will be welcome news to producers outside higher risk areas,” continued Raymond. “Producers should assess the risk of AI on their farms appropriately before allowing their birds into the range area.

“We will be working with all free-range producers to ensure that they are prepared as possible when new changes come into place.”

Welcome progress

Whilst the NFU has expressed fears over the extension, the British Poultry Council (BPC) has welcomed the news.

“Defra’s experts have reviewed the risk and are making sensible, science-based recommendations,” commented chief executive of the BPC Richard Griffiths. “The whole industry takes very seriously the responsibility to stamp-out bird flu from the UK.”

BPC highlighted that by identifying higher risk areas, the poultry meat sector could now focus the effort and resources where it is needed the most. It would also support continued free-range production in lower risk areas.

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