PARIS – 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 chief veterinarian, Loic Evain, said more than 200,000 ducks had already been slaughtered and another 400,000 birds were 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 on Thursday they had slaughtered three infected poultry flocks – 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, a bastion 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 three-kilometer radius of an infected flock. Free range chickens and turkeys in this range were also slaughtered.
CIFOQ said Thursday that government officials shared plans to expand the killings 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, on Wednesday called 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 repetition of the devastation caused by the two previous waves of avian flu during the 2015/2016 and 2016/2017 winters.
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.