In a statement, Japan's agriculture ministry cited Thai reports that the Avian 'flu virus had jumped to humans. "Until it becomes clear if there has been an outbreak, we have told the relevant parties that we are temporarily suspending imports from Thailand as a precautionary measure," it said.
The ban could devastate the Thai poultry industry. According to a Reuters report, Japan took 60 per cent of Thailand's 60 billion baht (€1.2 billion) of chicken exports last year. The announcement has already sent shares in Thailand's main chicken exporters tumbling to their lowest since May.
Nonetheless, Thai officials remain confident that the ban will have little long-term effect. Commerce minister Wattana Muangsook told Reuters that the country would quickly solve this problem, and the country's health minister Sudarat Keyuraphan reiterated the official line that Thailand has nothing to hide.
Such confidence worries Jody Lanard, a US-based risk communication consultant. Yesterday he told us that he believed 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," he said.
There are certainly worrying reports emanating from Thailand. Senator Nirun Phitakwagchara, a doctor, told Reuters that tests confirmed seven-year-old Virat Phrapong had the disease in Suphanburi province, 100 km north of Bangkok. The English-language Nation newspaper also quoted unnamed medical sources as saying several Thais have died of bird flu, but that officials were too scared to speak.
But the government insists that it is poultry cholera and not Avian 'flu that is affecting Thai poultry farms. Poultry cholera cannot jump to humans. Thai officials say that they have begun a massive operation to prevent the spread of the disease.
Europe is monitoring the situation very closely. The EU is a huge export market for Thai poultry - the UK alone imported some 40,000 tons of poultry in 2002. If Thailand were found to be covering up outbreaks of the virus, a blanket ban on Thai poultry exports would have significant repercussions for the Asian nation's economy.