Fears grow that bird flu virus has entered food chain

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The avian flu virus that led to the culling of 160,000 birds on a Bernard Matthews turkey farm may have entered the human food supply, Government food safety experts admitted yesterday.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) said it was investigating the possibility as part of a wider inquiry into the outbreak on the farm at Holton in Suffolk. There was no threat to human health, the FSA said.

The most likely cause of the outbreak is now believed to be frozen poultry pieces imported from Hungary, which may have been contaminated with the virus, to a processing plant next to the Suffolk farm.

Professor Sir David King, the Government's chief scientist said packaged turkey meat could be removed from supermarket shelves following the disclosure. "I think that is exactly what the Food Standards Agency will be looking at now," he told Channel 4 News.

The FSA confirmed it was investigating but said it had no plans at present to recall turkey products. A spokesman said: "Even if infected poultry had entered the food chain, and we don't know that yet, it is not a human health risk. There is not one case round the world in which humans have contracted the disease from eating infected meat."

As the scare threatened to engulf Bernard Matthews' £400m business in the UK, he postponed an appointment at Buckingham Palace where he was due to receive a CVO (Commander of the Victorian Order) from the Queen yesterday for his charity work.

Earlier Professor King said the H5N1 virus identified in the outbreak was identical to the strain in the Hungarian outbreak on a goose farm in Szentes last month. Thousands of geese were destroyed. The "most likely scenario" was that the virus was brought into the UK by dead poultry rather than wild birds as had originally been thought, he said.

Both the Environment Secretary David Miliband and a Bernard Matthews spokesman had previously ruled out any link with the Hungarian outbreak.

Bernard Matthews has a processing plant at Sarvar in southern Hungary from where tonnes of poultry pieces - plucked, cut and frozen - are imported to the Suffolk plant each week.

One consignment arrived a few days before 27 January, when the first signs of illness were seen among turkey chicks on the Suffolk farm. The outbreak on the goose farm in Szentes , Hungary, started on 19 January. Vets said the virus could survive for "several days" in a carcass and for longer if it was frozen.

Speaking following a meeting of Cobra, the Government's emergency committee,the Environment Minister Ben Bradshaw said: "Bernard Matthews have been open with us about that but we need to investigate that further. We are investigating reports that there may have been some bio-security breaches at the plant."

He said legal action could follow.

The Government's deputy chief veterinary officer Fred Landeg warned that the investigation into the outbreak could take weeks. "It is like a jigsaw - we may not get all the pieces and we may have to come to some conclusion on the balance of probabilities."

However, the former Agriculture Ministry, which was renamed to restore public confidence after the debacles over foot-and-mouth disease and "mad cow" disease, was facing criticism after it emerged it had made 70 wildlife officers redundant. The officers would be on the frontline if the bird flu outbreak spreads outside to smallholders with other fowl.

A spokesman for Defra said many of the officers were made redundant after their contracts ended with the conclusion of the pilot study into the culling of badgers.

The questions raised by the outbreak

Is turkey, and other forms of poultry, safe to eat?

The Food Standards Agency insists that it is. We do not know for sure that infected meat is on the supermarket shelves. Even if it is, infected poultry "is not a human health risk" when consumed, the agency says.

The virus is transmitted from bird to bird through infected faeces and the gut. That cannot happen in humans - we lack the necessary receptors for the virus in our gut. Humans have only been infected - 271 of them worldwide of whom 165 have died - through the respiratory system, when an airborne version of the virus was breathed in while plucking or gutting a bird. That requires prolonged close contact.

Are there echoes here of BSE?

A decade ago, ministers assured the public that beef was safe to eat - and then had to eat their words when, in March 1986, it was announced that a BSE-like disease, called variant CJD, had been discovered in humans. Experts say that avian flu is different. BSE and variant CJD were new diseases, caused by a previously unknown agent, the prion, whose mechanism of transmission was not understood. Avian flu has been closely studied, there are tests available to detect it and it is known that cooking to a temperature of 70C destroys it. But the virus remains unpredictable.

What is the inquiry focusing on?

Bernard Matthews, the company, has some very serious questions to answer about its bio-security - both in the UK and Hungary. If the virus was imported in infected poultry meat, as suspected, how did the poultry get infected in Hungary?

One suggestion is that a slaughterhouse close to the outbreak of avian flu on a goose farm in Hungary, may provide a link. Once the frozen poultry pieces arrived at the Suffolk processing plant in the UK, how did the virus get from the plant to the sheds where the turkey chicks were being reared? Traces of the virus have been found in three of the 22 sheds. One theory is wild birds or rats could have eaten the infected meat and transmitted the virus to the sheds.

Did the Government or Bernard Matthews withold information from the public about the outbreak?

Both deny it. The company said that no live birds had been imported from Hungary but did not mention that poultry meat was imported. Ministers say they had been told that the imported poultry was from outside the exclusion zone imposed in Hungary around the outbreak on the goose farm and that "the importation of poultry from an EU country is a legitimate business."

Jeremy Laurance

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