Howard Hellig

Poultry industry adviser
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The Independent Online

Howard Hellig, veterinary surgeon: born Cape Town 28 June 1935; married 1959 Letitia Jacoby (two daughters); died London 7 August 2006.

Howard Hellig was a veterinary surgeon and entrepreneur who also became a expert adviser on the £1.5bn poultry industry to both private- and public-sector bodies.

He spoke out strongly in support of the intensive system of rearing chickens in the face of fierce criticism of the practice. Speaking with the authority of one who had vast practical experience of poultry farming, he maintained that intensive production of flocks in a properly designed and managed unit could be humane as well as economic.

He had no time for those who took an anthropomorphic view of chickens. When the RSPCA made a film condemning intensive rearing of poultry in broiler houses, it compared the system to the horrors of Belsen. Hellig, who had relatives who had died in the camps, was enraged at the comparison.

Hellig was born in 1935 in South Africa, where in 1958 he qualified as a vet. His antecedents had fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe to establish a new life in South Africa. He left in 1975, bringing his family to the UK to start afresh because he hated apartheid and, indeed, fundamentalism of all kinds. He joined the Waters veterinary partnership in Colchester, Essex, a mixed practice in which he developed a substantial interest in the veterinary care of poultry and ran a laboratory providing microbiological and serological services for the poultry industry.

Once established in England, he began to take an interest in the profession's representative organisations. A tall man with a laconic manner, he made his mark. His contributions to discussion were to the point and leavened by a dry wit. He was fond of a good argument, whether about the statistics of salmonella infection in poultry, or, away from business, about the state of international rugby; no meeting with Hellig could be dull. He was a sought-after choice for industry and professional committees, including those of the British Veterinary Poultry Association and the British Veterinary Association (BVA).

In 1991, he was elected President of the BVA, in which role his effectiveness as a communicator came fully into play, not only in his frequent broadcasts giving the veterinary view on one or other of the scares about the risk of infection from chicken or eggs that surfaced periodically at the time but, less publicly, in his negotiations with senior members of the State Veterinary Service.

His advice continued to be called on after his retirement. The present Chief Veterinary Officer, Debby Reynolds, and her predecessors Keith Meldrum and Howard Rees, joined in a tribute to Hellig's contribution to the partnership approach between government vets and the private sector in dealing with the threats of avian flu and Newcastle disease. He contributed, they said, a "lifetime's knowledge of the poultry, a great feel for the art of the practical and support for those with the responsibility for taking difficult decisions".

Edward Boden