Poultry to be registered as anti-bird flu measure

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As the European Union banned the import of pet birds and feathers from Russia following the latest outbreak of the disease, the Government announced that the introduction of the register - a European requirement by 2007 - would be brought forward by two years to allow slaughter teams quicker into infected farms.

At present information about individual flocks is kept by separate organisations such as the British Poultry Council. Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said the recent outbreaks of the fatal H5N1 strain of bird flu in Turkey and Romania had "refocused" the UK's attention on its contingency plans. She said: "We believe we are prepared to deal with an outbreak. This database would be another safeguard to help identify an outbreak but, more importantly, limit its spread. It would allow us to know where poultry farms are and target effort and resources effectively."

Farmers will be contacted by Defra to begin the registration within the next month.

Yesterday the Prime Minister held talks at Downing Street with the National Farmers' Union to review the Government's contingency plans for avian flu.

After emerging from the talks the NFU president, Tim Bennett, confirmed that plans were likely to include the creation of a three-kilometre exclusion zone around any confirmed bird flu cases. Any poultry within that region will be culled.

Speaking outside Downing Street, Mr Bennett said: "Those few people in the Far East who have developed avian influenza have been in close contact with infected birds, so it is of paramount importance we protect the 50,000 people working in our industry."

Meanwhile, EU health ministers arrived in Britain yesterday to discuss how best to prepare for a worldwide outbreak of bird flu. The European Commissioner for Health, Markos Kyprianou, and the Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, were attending the two-day conference in Chandler's Cross, Hertfordshire.

Avian flu, which emerged in the Far East, is passed between wild birds and domestic poultry. It can be caught by humans and kills more than half its victims. Health officials say it cannot be caught by eating cooked poultry, but there are concerns it may mutate and be passed from human to human - which it cannot do at the moment.

The EU's ban on Russian birds follows bans on imports from Turkey, Romania and the Greek island of Chios. A Commission spokeswoman said the Russian ban, prompted by confirmed avian flu cases in hundreds of domestic birds in the county of Tula, near Moscow, covered the whole country except Kaliningrad, Murmansk, St Petersburg, and Karelia.

The Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, said this week that a pandemic was "inevitable", but added: "We've ordered a stockpile of two and a half million doses of vaccine against the current strain of bird flu, which is a contingency, but we're going to scale up capacity with manufacturers so that when we identify the exact strain, the exact vaccine can be manufactured much quicker then would be the case."

About 120 people worldwide have been diagnosed with the H5N1 strain since 2003, leading to 60 deaths.

Turkey farmers fear quiet Christmas

Turkey farmers are desperately hoping sales of up to 10 million birds being plumped up for Christmas are not wrecked by the bird flu scare.

Although chickens form most of the UK's £1.6bn-a-year poultry market, turkeys are an important part of the business in winter. Almost 95 per cent of British poultry is reared indoors, but free-range animals could catch avian flu from wild birds.

The Department for Environment, Food and the Rural Affairs said: "If farmers have free-range turkeys we are asking them to put the sources of feed and water into overnight coops because that reduces the risk of those sources of food being infected by wild birds."

Bernard Matthews, Britain's most famous turkey producer which breeds eigh million a year, has limited the number of visitors to its sites to reduce the risk of infection.

The Traditional Farmfresh Turkey Association, which represents small producers who supply butchers, was confident its customers would not be put off buying their turkeys because of bird flu. But Clive Wreathall, its chairman, said there was a wider concern in the industry, especially among the larger producers, that sales could be hit.

"Yes, it is a problem and yes, it is a challenge but it is not one that is insurmountable given the time we have in the run-up to Christmas," he said. "We always have fluctuations in sales and hopefully this will be short-lived."

The Food Standards Agency's says people cannot catch bird flu eating properly cooked poultry.

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