December has got off to a very bad start for Poland. On 1 December, authorities announced the country’s first ever outbreak of the H5N1 sub-type of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in poultry on several turkey farms in the central Warsaw region. Worse was to come the following day with news that infected turkey meat had been found in shops and originating from two warehouses in the northern Pomorze region (Pomerania). Given the time span involved, they admitted most of the meat was in the food chain, perhaps for more than one week.
Three turkey farms at the village of Brudzen in the Plock area some 80km north-west of Warsaw were cordoned off within a 3km area after the outbreak was discovered. The country’s veterinary service culled 4200 turkeys at the affected farms, said Poland’s chief veterinary officer, Ewa Lech.
“The turkeys were euthanised on Saturday night [1 December] and the destruction of their carcasses was due to end on Sunday,” said a PAP News Agency report following announcements by Hilary Januszcyzk, chief of crisis management in the affected district.
Polish authorities believe the virus was brought into the country by migrating wild ducks, geese or swans, adding that Poland's previous H5N1 outbreak was in wild swans in the northern city of Torun in 2006.
Even worse news came on the following day, (2 December 2007) when Thenews.pl reported that 480kg of turkey meat in the Pomorze region had been found to contain the H5N1 virus. Anna Obuchowska, spokeswoman for the Sanitary Inspectorate in the Pomorze region, said the meat in shops was sourced from two warehouses in Żukow and Sierakowice. Żukow plant supplied meat to shops in Gdańsk and Gdynia and the Sierakowice warehouse shops in Człuchów, Chojnice, Kościerzyna and Kartuzy. Obuchowska confirmed an ongoing search for any remaining meat in the shops, but feared none would remain because the turkey meat had been delivered at the beginning of the previous week. Shop employees are under surveillance by the Sanitary Inspectorate for their own safety.
Following the outbreaks on the turkey farms around Płock in central Poland, information bulletins are to be distributed in schools today (3 December) while local priests stepped in to supply information and reassure local residents. Surveillance is now underway of farms in the infected areas around the town of Płock with all vehicles passing through the area undergoing disinfection. Farmers are being told to keep poultry indoors.
The farm outbreaks are in central Poland but the warehouses containing infected meat are in Pomorze (Pomerania) in the far north on the Baltic coast. Indeed ‘Pomorze’ means ‘sea coast’. Unless the meat was transported from the infected area around Plock in the central Warsaw region, other farms elsewhere in Poland are infected.
Outbreaks on farms are bad enough but the H5N1 virus getting into the food chain and remaining there for so long without detection is a catastrophe – not only for Polish poultry industry workers and consumers. Poland is just one of 25 countries in the European Union (EU) for which free movement and trade in goods and services is a core reason for existence. Poland with its highly competitive labour rates has become an increasingly important exporter of poultry products especially to richer EU members.
EU rules are supposed to prevent other member countries from banning imports of live birds, poultrymeat and eggs from areas from another affected EU country. Imports can be banned from the immediate area around the infection but neighbouring EU member, Lithuania, is taking no chances.
Polish Agriculture Minister, Marek Sawicki, expressed surprise over reports that claimed Lithuania had banned poultry imports from Poland following the outbreak. “Binding European Union principles ban the import of meat only from a 3-km danger zone and 10-km threat zone around the outbreak site, but no EU member may ban imports from an entire member state,” Mr Sawicki said on Polish television. He went on to confirm that owners of the poultry farms where flocks had been culled would be compensated at current retail prices.
The UN recently expressed fears of H5N1 being entrenched and endemic in eastern Europe with ducks and geese regarded as the big danger. Recent outbreaks in backyard poultry in Romania’s Danube river delta region announced just before those in Poland will do nothing to dampen speculation. Though little noticed and publicised, Romania has the sixth highest number of H5N1 outbreaks in the world with 163 since late 2005, only slightly less than Turkey, more than Russia and the highest in Europe.
United Kingdom’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has already traced possible links from summer H5N1 outbreaks in Germany and Czech Republic to recent outbreaks at Redgrave Poultry in Suffolk. They came up with nothing but perhaps should now look further east in Europe. The UK imports around 50 tonnes of turkey meat from other EU member countries every year.
Perhaps ducks really are the problem in Europe, the virus staying hidden and not causing disease until it comes into contact with turkeys which it appears to knock over with ease.