As the poultry industries of Vietnam, Japan and South Korea count the cost of the Avian 'flu crisis, there are fears that Thailand - a major exporter of chicken, may have the virus as well.
Around 400,000 chickens have died in Thailand since November, half killed by cholera and the rest through culling to prevent the spread of the virulent strain of poultry cholera known as Pasteurella Multocida Type A. However, Thai officials insist the country is free of bird 'flu, and prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra claimed on Saturday that the WHO has confirmed that the country is free from the virus.
There is a great deal of international scepticism over this. "This affects Europe," British Poultry Council chief executive Peter Bradnock told FoodProductionDaily.com. "It is a major concern because the EU is a huge export market for Thai poultry. The UK alone imported some 40,000 tons of poultry in 2002. If this is the case - that the Thai authorities are covering something up - then we have a problem on our hands."
In this scenario, Bradnock identifies two possible consequences. One, that the disease is clearly not being properly controlled and two, from an EU point of view, that the actions of the Thais would be deemed to be illegal in terms of EU law and also flout Thailand's international trade obligations with the OIE(Office International des Epizooties).
"This would be very worrying. Because it would say, what other areas of trade is Thailand turning a blind eye to? And international trade, after all, is dependent on competent authorities."
This morning, the Thai Livestock Department confirmed the disease sweeping through its poultry farms as fowl cholera and bronchitis. EU health and consumer protection commissioner David Byrne is visiting Bangkok tomorrow to inspect food safety systems. The Thai prime minister has said that about 1.5 million chickens have been killed under epidemic control measures.
The East Asian poultry industry is in the middle of a crisis. According to WHO spokesperson Peter Cordingley, the bird flu currently afflicting Vietnam and South Korea could be potentially more dangerous than SARS if it attaches itself to the common flu virus. "If this new virus is effectively transmitted like the common flu virus, we have the potential for widespread damage," he said.
And there was more bad news this morning. The WHO announced that the virus in Vietnam had claimed its fifth human victim, and some experts are worried there might be a mixing of the avian flu with a human flu. This could lead to a new, contagious deadly disease sweeping out of Asia, a year after Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome emerged and killed about 800 people around the world.
Of the three countries, Vietnam has been the most badly affected. About two million chickens have been killed by the disease or have been culled. The transport of chickens has been banned across much of the south of the country.
Europe, of course, has experienced the effects of Avian 'flu first-hand. Hundreds of cases of the disease were confirmed in April and May last year, resulting in the culling of nearly 30 million birds. The EU brought in a number of restrictive measures in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, which suffered the worst of the crisis.
"The disease is devastating," said Bradnock. "If you were looking for an equivalent, I suppose you could say that avian influenza is to the poultry industry what FMD is to the cattle industry."
The European Union has established tight controls designed to contain any possible outbreak. Within the bloc, there are two zones of control, at 3km and 10km, which would immediately be put around affected sites. Everything within 3km would be slaughtered, while the 10km zone would be a surveillance zone. Meat from within this could be consumed, but could not be exported. In fact during the outbreak in the Netherlands last year, the movement of birds outside the 10km zone was halted.
But despite his confidence in European safety measures, Bradnock has his fears. He is worried that the current outbreak in Asia could indicate that the disease has become more prevalent, and that the disease has become more virulent. "After all, we're dealing with a flu virus here," he said. "Influenza strains change. The important thing about dealing with this disease is speed. Decisive action is necessary as the virus is spread so easily and bird mortality rates are so high."
Bradnock believes that the way poultry is reared in Europe helps keep the disease in check. For example chicks are not moved around and are often kept indoors - according to Bradnock the disease is often spread by wild waterfowl.