Production resumes in factory at centre of avian flu storm

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The Independent Online

Production was due to start again today at the Bernard Matthews factory farm hit by Britain's first major outbreak of bird flu.

Just 10 days after the infection was confirmed, the food company was given permission to start bringing live birds back into the plant at Holton, Suffolk, where 159,000 turkeys were culled last week.

Turkeys will be brought in under a special licence, which allows them to cross into the quarantine zone imposed around the site. They will be slaughtered and processed into food products ready to be sent around the country.

Ministers have suggested that Bernard Matthews could be prosecuted over biosecurity lapses at the plant. David Miliband, the Secretary of State for the Environment, refused to be drawn last night on reports that government inspectors discovered a possible link to an avian flu outbreak in Hungary from a discarded wrapper at the farm.

Bernard Matthews was given the all-clear to resume production after talks between Mr Miliband, vets and public health experts. He was told no further cases of bird flu had been discovered outside the Holton plant, which has been cleaned and disinfected.

Mr Miliband defended the decision last night to relicense the plant, saying it was based on advice from the independent advisory body, the Food Standards Agency. "The question I am asked them is, 'Is it sensible?' and they say, 'Yes, it is sensible'. They have investigated all of the aspects of the slaughterhouse and they believe them to be of appropriate standard."

Mr Miliband attempted to soothe tensions between Britain and Hungary over how the H5N1 virus reached Suffolk, speaking to its ambassador to London and the Hungarian agriculture minister.

The Government believes the virus was transmitted to Holton from the central European country, which suffered an outbreak of avian flu among wild birds.

The claim is disputed by Hungary, which feels it is being unfairly blamed before scientists have reached firm conclusions.

Mr Miliband said: "Nothing I have been told changes the working hypothesis about the most likely route of transmission ... but all options remain under consideration. I expect a further report by the end of the week. Discussions are continuing with Bernard Matthews about biosecurity on their site."

Vets were first called to the plant on 1 February to investigate the deaths of 2,600 turkeys, with avian flu confirmed two days later. Government vets suggested the outbreak could be linked to imports from the company's factory in Hungary.

The Food Standards Agency confirmed last night it was possible that infected poultry had entered the human food chain, but no evidence of an increased risk to public health had been uncovered.

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