Thailand admits to Avian 'flu

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Bird flu, Asia, International trade, Thailand

After a week of denials and perhaps months of cover-ups, Thailand
has finally admitted that it has been hit by Avian 'flu, the
poultry virus that has ravaged other parts of East Asia. A Thai
minister told reporters that two boys suspected of having the
disease have tested positive.

The announcement is likely to have serious repercussions and will raise fears that the virus has mutated into a more serious form. In an article featured in today's UK medical journal The Lancet​, scientists warn that standard vaccines could be useless against the virus if it started spreading.

But it also raises serious questions about the safety and quality of Thailand's food industry, a major exporter to the EU.

"I'm not that surprised,"British Poultry Council​ chief executive Peter Bradnock told FoodProductionDaily.com."It confirms the suspicions of several experts that the country may have had this virus for some time."

Jody Lanard, a US-based risk communication consultant, has been following the Thai case with great interest and is also not surprised at the outcome. "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."

Last week, a number of senior ministers claimed that Thailand had "never"​ seen a case of avian 'flu. Cabinet members even enjoyed a lunch featuring various chicken dishes to prove that the meat was safe for consumption, an event broadcast live on national television.

"But they undoubtedly did not personally buy, kill, and clean their chicken - and that seems to be where the risk of catching bird flu is highest,"​ said Lanard.

Bradnock's worry now is whether Thailand can be trusted as 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."

The EU's handling of the crisis will also have to be examined. A Bangkok Post​ article earlier this week quoted David Byrne, the EU commissioner for health and consumer protection as stating that there was absolutely no evidence of the existence of bird flu in Thailand. According to the report, he even went on to praise Thailand's food safety record.

"Bangkok has made very great progress in recent times relating to food safety that will see fluent exports of poultry products and shrimp from Thailand to the EU."

Well not any more. France this morning announced that it would impound imports of fresh chicken from Thailand dated after 1 January, following the discovery of bird 'flu. And the EU itself, Thailand's second biggest poultry market, has indicated that it will impose a ban if Thai authorities confirm that there is a bird 'flu outbreak. "The effect on the Europe will be a tightening of supply,"​ said Bradnock. "Less meat will be available."

Bradnock said that there was no danger from contracting the virus from consuming meat, and that therefore the virus was unlikely to be brought into Europe. But the effect of today's revelations of a possible government cover up will be felt keenly in both Asia and Europe.

Related topics: Food safety

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