Avian flu in Britain for Christmas: What’s at stake?
How will British consumers react to the latest news of the bird flu outbreak?
Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat; Please put a penny in the old man’s hat. This is the opening line of the old English nursery rhyme and Christmas carol, clearly indicating Christmas is a time to be jolly and charitable. But not too many British poultry producers are feeling jolly following the arrival of H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) – and especially seasonal producers of turkeys, geese and ducks in East Anglia where the outbreak has occurred.
All over the world, religious festivals are big time for poultry producers and Christmas in the United Kingdom (UK) is no exception. Turkey is still the number one choice with around 10 million birds purchased at Christmas representing over half the yearly total.
Goose and duck – although much less widely purchased – are important seasonal fare. Chicken may no longer be the number one choice for the main holiday meal on Christmas Day (25 December) but will be consumed in quantity as will eggs over the entire holiday period, which lasts up to 10 days depending on the calendar.
So what is potentially at stake if the UK government is unable get the disease under control and its effects starts to creep into December? Turkeys are clearly most at risk showing yet again high susceptibility to the H5N1 virus. Geese and ducks as well as turkeys are affected at Redgrave Park Farm in Suffolk but only the latter showed avian flu symptoms and died.
Because of the popularity of turkey on Christmas menus, hardest hit will be the dedicated seasonal turkey farmers, rather than all-year-round (AYR) producers.
Turkey took a severe knock with consumers following the H5N1 outbreak at the Bernard Matthews turkey farm at Holton Suffolk earlier this year, and the market is still recovering. Following the escalating feed cost during 2007, UK poultry producers and especially turkey farmers are looking forward to an anticipated increase in price predicted at around 10%.
Of the 17 million UK-reared turkeys sold every year, some 10 million are purchased for Christmas. The industry is broadly split into large producers like Bernard Matthews and Cranberry Foods, which dominate the AYR turkey sector, and around 600 much smaller ones producing for the seasonal market only. Some 8-9 million Christmas turkeys are sold by AYR producers and another one million plus by smaller seasonal producers.
The turkey sector in total contributes UK£360 million every year at retail level to the UK economy. Key seasonal producers include Kelly Turkey Farms and Gressingham Foods with which the affected Redgrave Park Farm is associated. Gressingham Foods is best known for its geese which dominate the UK market, and specialty ducks loved by several well known television personality chefs, but the company’s farms also produce 100,000 seasonal turkeys.
Vulnerability of East Anglia (Norfolk and Suffolk) and neighbouring eastern counties like Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Essex is clear to see from the regional split in turkey production. Almost all AYR production takes place in the eastern half of England. Seasonal producers are found throughout the UK but are concentrated in East Anglia and the south-west. Over 97% of the UK turkey flock is in England. The three biggest turkey producing counties of Norfolk, Lincolnshire and North Yorkshire are all in the extreme east with Norfolk alone housing 28% of the national flock.
Goose production is almost entirely seasonal for Christmas and relatively small at 300,000 birds. One-third is produced by Gressingham Foods and the other 200,000 by 300 small producers. Almost 96% of the UK goose flock is in England with 58% housed in Norfolk.
Some are already forecasting a seasonal disaster but it will take more than one outbreak to stop UK consumers purchasing their traditional Christmas turkey. Charles Bourns, National Farmers’ Union Poultry Board chairman, told the East Anglian Daily Times that the compulsory cull at Redgrave should not have a noticeable impact on shoppers. “It is a worry for farmers in the area but consumers have always carried on eating turkeys and chickens quite happily. I would have thought they would be more relaxed this time than they were last time,” he said, referring to the Bernard Matthews outbreak in February. “It is obviously of concern but as long as it stays on the one farm like it has done in previous outbreaks we will just have to ride it out over the next few weeks”.
Mr Bourns went on to point out that turkey supply over Christmas would not be affected because the cull of 5000 turkeys at the Redgrave Park Farm accounted for an insignificant amount of the 10 million festive turkeys sold each year. The 8-week-old ‘Bronze’ turkeys at Redgrave Park Farm were destined for upmarket restaurants and supermarket chain, Waitrose.
There is some concern that free-range turkeys will be disproportionately affected especially if wild birds turn out to be the source and the disease has already spread. Mr Bourns points out that of 10 million UK turkeys eaten at Christmas every year, only 1.5 million are traditional free-range fresh turkeys. “There is no reason for people to panic,” he said.
Officials appear confident the disease can be contained and eradicated. President of the National Farmers' Union Peter Kendall told the press, “We will be working closely with the Department of Agriculture to do all we can to contain and eradicate this disease as quickly as possible.”It is the small seasonal producers who are already being hit hardest. Eddie Heggarty who owns a poultry business in Pulham Market in Norfolk near the outbreak farm told This is London, “I've had to move all my birds indoors. We have only 60 for Christmas but obviously it's a worry.”