France plans duck slaughter as avian flu hits foie gras

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In this file photo taken on December 10, 2015, ducks roam an enclosure outside a farm in Benesse-Maremne, southwestern France. – A “finding of helplessness” in the face of a situation that has become “uncontrollable”: faced with a surge in the number of farms contaminated by avian influenza in the southwest, the professionals of foie gras pressed on January 7, 2021 health authorities to carry out preventive slaughter of ducks on a larger scale. (Photo by IROZ GAIZKA / AFP)

PARIS, France – French foie gras producers on Thursday called for a preventive mass slaughter of ducks in an attempt to stop the spread of a serious strain of bird flu that is plaguing poultry farms in the southwest of the country .

The highly pathogenic H5N8 virus was first detected in a bird in a pet shop on the Mediterranean island of Corsica in November before spreading to duck farms on the mainland in December.

Several European countries have reported cases of infection, five years after a major epidemic caused the culling of millions of ducks in France.

“The virus is stronger than us. New clusters are constantly emerging, ”Marie-Pierre Pe, head of the French federation CIFOQ of foie gras producers, told AFP.

The number of epidemics had now risen to 124, the agriculture ministry said Thursday, adding that around 350,000 ducks had been slaughtered since December 24.

Earlier this week, the government’s chief veterinarian, Loic Evain, said more than 200,000 ducks had already been slaughtered and another 400,000 birds were due to be slaughtered, out of around 35 million raised each year.

He described the virus, which is not harmful to humans, as “very, very contagious.”

Belgian officials said Thursday they had slaughtered three flocks of infected poultry – one in Menen, in the west of the country, another in Dinant in the south and a third in Diksmuide in West Flanders.

Belgium’s federal food safety agency AFSCA, which has ordered poultry owners to lock up their animals to avoid contamination, said 20 cases of the virus have been found in wild birds.

Hervé Dupouy, a French producer who heads the local poultry section of the FNSEA farmers’ federation in the Landes department, a stronghold of the foie gras industry, said “the situation is out of control”.

He called on the state to cull all poultry flocks in the region and impose a two-month production freeze.

“There is no other solution,” he said.

So far, authorities have culled all ducks and geese within a two-mile radius of an infected flock. Free-range chickens and turkeys in this range have also been slaughtered.

CIFOQ said Thursday that government officials had shared plans to expand the culling over a wider area.

Clusters of avian flu have been detected in poultry farms and in animal facilities in the Landes and neighboring departments of Gers and Pyrénées-Atlantique.

Chinese market in peril

The head of the French chamber of agriculture, Sébastien Windsor, called Wednesday for “radical measures” to try to restore confidence in export markets such as China, which this week announced the suspension of French poultry imports to cause of the virus.

Producers of foie gras, a pâté made from the livers of force-fed ducks or geese, fear a repeat of the devastation caused by the two previous waves of avian flu during the winters of 2015/2016 and 2016/2017.

More than 25 million ducks were slaughtered in the first outbreak, followed by 4.5 million the following year, causing a sharp drop in the production of foie gras.

Besides France and Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Great Britain and Ireland have also reported outbreaks of bird flu since the onset of winter.

Dutch authorities slaughtered some 190,000 chickens in November following the discovery of the virus on two farms.

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