UK faces ‘big, big shortages’ of free-range Christmas poultry | Bird flu

Half of free-range Christmas poultry in the UK have died or been culled due to the outbreak of bird flu, a poultry industry leader has told MPs.

British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on Tuesday that free-range poultry had been hit “very, very hard”.

Around 600,000 of the usual 1.2 to 1.3 million free-range turkeys and geese for Christmas had already been “directly affected” by the disease. And of the total 8.5 to 9 million turkeys produced each year for the holiday season, Griffiths said about 1.6 million have already died from the disease or been slaughtered.

The highly contagious bird flu, which has plagued Britain for more than a year and has accelerated in recent weeks, is deadly to farm animals, such as turkeys and geese.

However, Britain’s worst bird flu outbreak also resulted in the culling of all remaining birds on an affected farm.

Asked what the devastation in the poultry sector would mean for the cost of turkeys in stores, Griffiths said: “I don’t know, and that’s really a question for retailers at this point. We don’t know how the gaps within retail are going to be filled.

Paul Kelly of Essex-based Kelly Turkeys told MPs there would be ‘big, big shortages’ of free-range turkeys on the shelves.

However, the farmer said he did not anticipate a price increase: “I think it will just be a supply problem rather than the price increase.”

There have been 136 confirmed cases of highly pathogenic H5N1 bird flu in the UK since the start of October, the vast majority of them in England, although the disease has now reached every nation.

Griffiths said that in previous outbreaks, the number of cases had only tended to hit double the numbers.

More than a third (36%) of poultry farms have been affected by some form of control aimed at curbing the spread of bird flu, whether or not they were directly affected by the disease, Griffiths told the committee.

Kelly told MPs his business had already dealt with three outbreaks, costing him £1.2million.

“For farmers, it’s been devastating,” Kelly said, calling for an overhaul of the compensation scheme.

Farmers are only compensated for the number of fit and healthy animals when authorities arrive to cull the remaining birds. However, poultry producers report that entire flocks succumb to the disease before a slaughter can begin.

“The challenge for a lot of small seasonal producers who produce Christmas poultry, they have their flock on their farm and when it gets infected, those turkeys will die within four days,” Kelly said.

Poultry producers are calling for the development of a bird flu vaccine to be accelerated amid warnings that many of those affected are wondering whether to keep raising turkeys.

It comes after the British Free Range Egg Producers Association said this month that shortages and rationing caused by bird flu were set to last beyond Christmas. Tesco and Asda are among the supermarkets that ration eggs.

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