Britain's first outbreak of bird flu may have been caused by semi-processed turkey meat imported directly from Hungary, where the disease is prevalent, the Government said last night.
Large quantities of the meat - 38 tonnes of it a week - have been brought in to the processing plant of the Bernard Matthews turkey farm at Holton in Suffolk, where a week ago thousands of live turkeys in an adjacent shed were found to be suffering from the H5N1 strain of the virus.
The revelation, in the statement from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), is a remarkable about-turn. Earlier this week, the Environment Secretary, David Miliband, assured the Commons that there was "no Hungarian connection". The question had arisen because the Bernard Matthews company has a large Hungarian subsidiary which produces turkeys under the brand name Saga, and avian flu has recently been found in Hungary.
Mr Miliband had said the outbreak had probably been brought to Britain by wild birds. Last night's statement shows government vets now consider the Hungarian link to be a prime hypothesis for the outbreak. It also makes the wild-bird theory extremely unlikely - as Britain's bird experts have always said.
The Hungarian theory has been further strengthened by tests indicating that the virus in Suffolk and the virus in Hungary are identical.
Besides putting a question mark over the bio- security regime of the Bernard Matthews organisation, the revelation raises questions about whether any of the imported meat that may have been infected with H5N1 has got into the human food chain. The shipments of part-processed meat, brought to Suffolk for final processing, are thought to comprise thousands of birds, and the plant is next door the shed where the British birds fell ill.
Defra was unable to say if any infected Hungarian turkeys had been eaten by UK consumers. But a Defra spokeswoman said that, even if it had happened, it would not pose a direct threat to human health. Dr Judith Hilton, head of microbiological safety at the FSA, said: "Food Standards Agency advice has been and remains that avian flu does not pose a food safety risk for UK consumers."
The Government's deputy chief vet, Fred Landeg, said: "Our investigations have shown that one possible route of infection is poultry product imported from Hungary ... We are working in close contact with the Hungarian authorities and the European Commission. The company involved [Bernard Matthews] have voluntarily agreed to temporarily suspend movement of poultry products between their outlets in the UK and Hungary."
The shadow Environment Secretary, Peter Ainsworth, said: "It always seemed unlikely that avian flu arrived in Suffolk via the wild bird population, since there has been no evidence of infected wild birds. Bernard Matthews now have some serious questions to answer about their bio-security arrangements and the version of events they have told."
Dr Mark Avery, director of conservation for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said last night: "Some commentators and non-ornithological experts have been making rash assumptions about wild birds and their involvement in the spread of H5N1, but we always thought this route was unlikely in this particular case."
How the saga unfolded
Tuesday 30 January
Staff at the Bernard Matthews turkey farm, in Holton, Suffolk notice high mortality among the flock. Local vets diagnose problem as E.coli.
Thursday 1 February
Government vets are called to Holton after the deaths of 2,600 turkeys. Affected premises put under restriction.
Friday 2 February
Preliminary results by the State Veterinary Service show the H5 strain of the avian influenza virus is present in samples from poultry found dead on the premises.
Saturday 3 February
Infection confirmed as highly pathogenic H5N1 Asian strain of bird flu.
Saturday 3 February
A 3km protection zone and 10km surveillance zone is imposed around the infected premises to restrict movements of poultry and isolate them from wild birds. Government vets start gassing the infected birds.
Monday 5 February
Environment Secretary David Miliband rules out claims that outbreak could have started in chicks imported from Hungary. "In respect of the chicks, they all came from within this country, so there is no Hungarian connection. The factory involved in the Hungarian outbreak is not a Bernard Matthews factory." Culling of 159,000 turkeys completed.
Wednesday 7 February
Miliband comments about outbreak on his blog. He says that investigators may never be able to determine cause of H5N1 infection.
Thursday 8 February
The Government says that following preliminary scientific tests, the viruses in Suffolk and recent outbreaks in Hungary may well be identical. Three more Bernard Matthews sheds confirmed to be infected with H5N1.Reuse content