Select Committee on European Union Fortieth Report


Letter from Lord Bach, Minister for Sustainable Farming and Food, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to the Chairman

  I am writing to all peers to bring to their attention important information relating to avian influenza ("bird flu") and seeking your co-operation in making this information available to other interested groups and individuals where relevant.

  Avian influenza is a disease of birds, not humans. People can become infected but rarely are. There are many strains of avian influenza viruses which vary in their ability to cause disease. The most severe form of the disease (highly pathogenic) is a notifiable disease which was last confirmed in the United Kingdom in 1991. Recent outbreaks of a new form of the virus, H5N1, have arisen in the Far East, Eastern Europe, Africa and most recently in EU member states such as France and Germany (though mainly in wild birds in Western Europe).

  Defra has been following the global situation on avian influenza very closely. Following the increasing number of outbreaks in EU member states, Defra recently published an updated Qualitative Risk Assessment on its website. The conclusions of that assessment confirm that following confirmation of the virus in eastern France there is an increased likelihood that highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza virus may be found in the UK.

  We have existing robust surveillance measures in place and have taken over 3,500 samples from wild birds, which so far have not detected H5N1 in the UK. Surveillance will continue at a high level and the general public can play its part by reporting to the Defra helpline on 08459 33 55 77, any unusual wild bird deaths.

  On the basis of current scientific evidence, the Food Standards Agency advises that avian flu does not pose a food safety risk for UK consumers. This is because for people, the risk of catching the disease is from being in close contact with live poultry that have the disease and not through eating cooked poultry, game or eggs.

  Defra has worked closely with the UK poultry industry, independent experts and other stakeholders in Government and beyond to ensure the UK is thoroughly prepared to prevent an outbreak of avian influenza and have robust plans in place to contain and eradicate it if it does occur.

  We believe that swift detection, stamping out, good biosecurity practices and the imposition of movement controls around the infected premises is the most effective and efficient approach to disease control. There is a danger that using current vaccines may delay the time taken to detect disease by concealing the virus but not preventing its spread and may put non-vaccinated birds and even poultry workers at risk of disease; the vaccines currently available require individual injection of each bird and can take between 1-3 weeks to build immunity (with booster doses possibly required). However, Defra is exploring the potential role of vaccination against Avian Influenza as technology and circumstances develop and will keep the situation under close review.

  Defra is working closely with a wide range of stakeholders, including the poultry industry, processors, retailers, consumers and conservation groups, and has reached a broad consensus that there are limited circumstances, such as zoo birds, where we may wish to vaccinate in an increased level of risk.

  Our work with stakeholders has also helped to agree practical measures and guidance for poultry keepers including arrangements for isolating birds from wild birds in the event the risk is assessed as "high".

  One of these measures is the Great Britain Poultry Register[75] which opened on 9 December 2005. Defra, the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly Government have developed the GB Register to gather essential information about poultry, game and other birds for the purposes of risk assessment, disease prevention and control.

  If we have up-to-date information on where birds are and how many there are, we will be able to manage a disease outbreak by targeting resources where they are needed most and help communicate with bird keepers more quickly.

  By law, only keepers of 50 or more poultry, game and certain other types of bird needed to have registered by 28 February 2006. However, we are encouraging all owners of flocks of fewer than 50 birds to register voluntarily to enhance the value of the register to all concerned, both in terms of improving contingency planning and improving our ability to communicate with poultry keepers. The register remains open to capture voluntary registrations, and to allow those who have already registered to amend their details if necessary.

  I would be grateful if you could share this information with interested groups and individuals who keep poultry, game or other birds. I would also like to seek your help in encouraging bird keepers to register (or find out more) as soon as possible by calling freephone 0800 634 1112.

  There are a number of avian influenza-related publications available which have been agreed in consultation with stakeholders about how to improve biosecurity and minimise contact with wild bird populations. An order form has been included with this letter(not printed). Copies of all these materials, including bilingual Welsh/English versions, can be requested by calling 08459 55 6000.

6 April 2007

75   The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development for Northern Ireland is also capturing data about poultry premises but on a separate database. Back

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