The Asian poultry industry continues to send out contradictory messages in the wake of the bird flu outbreak. Whilst Thailand looks set to restock its poultry flocks - a move which some industry observers believe could be premature - country's such as Vietnam and South Korea are continuing to send out more cautious messages, write Simon Pitman and Anthony Fletcher.
Indications are that in Thailand poultry farmers are gearing up to restock after the mass culling which followed the disease outbreak there. Reports indicate that the country's feed industry is set to import cargoes of Argentine soybeans as the country prepares to declare itself free of the deadly virus. But in the meantime continued outbreaks of the disease in South Korea and a further ban on the sale of live poultry in Vietnam, might suggest that the Thai authorities are jumping the gun.
Thailand is looking to source soymeal cargoes from India. The decimation of the poultry sector in Thailand, which accounts for over half of commercial feed consumption, has resulted in a steep decline in feed demand, but this looks set to change.
One Thai trader told Reuters that domestic supply of feed is not sufficient to satisfy the demand to restock. "There is no other alternative," he said. "Domestic meal supplies are not adequate."
The Thai government is expected to declare by the end of the week that the bird flu outbreak is over. The country, whose poultry export business annually tops $1 billion, has been forced to cull over 25 million chickens, and like other counties stricken by the deadly virus, the country is desperate to restore its poultry industry.
As a safety precaution, farmers in affected areas will have to wait 69 days after the declaration to restock farms. But not everyone is confident of Thai assurances that the country is now free from the virus. After all, the government denied the existence of the virus for weeks until irrefutable evidence forced it to climb down.
Jody Lanard, a US-based risk communication consultant, has been following the Thai case with great interest and was not surprised at the discovery of bird flu in the country. "In my field, risk communication, we teach officials and experts to help the public tolerate uncertainty, to help the public bear anxiety when anxiety is appropriate, and to level with the public at all times," he said.
"Thailand's leaders characteristically express over-confidence and premature over-reassurance in the face of the unknown and unproven. They have done the same thing regarding SARS preparation, and regarding terrorism."
British Poultry Council's Peter Bradnock is anther person worried that Thailand cannot be trusted as an international trade partner. Thai poultry exports to the EU are enormous - the UK alone imports over 40,000 tonnes each year. "It is regrettable that proper control methods were not in place," he said. "But what guarantees can the Thai government give that problems affecting other food exports are not being covered up? This is a wider concern that needs to be addressed."
Last month, it was reported that Vietnam was seeking to import between 500,000 to 600,000 tonnes of corn for feed, even though the FAO warned the country not to resume poultry farming too quickly. According to the Vietnamese ministry of trade, there is a possibility that import tariffs on corn purchase may be waved, opening the door to grain exporters from Australia, Europe and the US.
The move is supported by the Vietnam Husbandry Feed Association, which represents 138 feed processors in the country. It has warned of a possible rise in feed prices of up to 1.5 per cent, with processors looking to offset losses caused by bird flu.
However, just one week after Vietnam declared that it was bird flu free, its biggest city, Hanoi, has just declared that it has put a ban on the sale of live poultry in the city. The authorities say this move has been made in an attempt to stop the further spread of the disease, which to date has killed 16 people in the country. Vietnam has recorded the highest number of human victims - 16 people - followed by Thailand which has had eight deaths.
In both Thailand and Vietnam chicken and eggs have only just been introduced back on the menus, following the disease outbreak at the end of 2003. Since then approximately 100 million poultry have had to be culled in Asia.
Despite some of the most rigorous methods employed to control the spread of the disease, South Korea reported a further outbreak of the disease on a poultry farm just outside Seoul only two weeks. Authorities there believe that the disease may have been spread by wild birds. Scientists believe that with the onset of warmer spring weather the migration of wild birds northwards could lead to a further spread of the disease. Indeed only this week reports have been made of wild rooks being found dead from the disease, having migrated to eastern Russia from southeast Asia.
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has warned that countries affected by the deadly avian influenza virus H5N1 should not restock their flocks too quickly to avoid the disease flaring up again. The FAO says that before restocking, countries must prove the absence of virus circulation by virus research, serological surveys and the use of non-vaccinated susceptible chickens (so-called sentinels) on infected sites to test if they become infected.