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Will bird flu stuff our Happy Christmas?

Oh no, the turkeys are on fire...

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Will the latest outbreak of bird flu (the nasty, H5N1 strain) in the UK do for Christmas this year what Farepak did last year? Are we all due to sit down to a table of trimmings, without the turkey*?

On Sunday, the highly pathogenic strain of the virus was discovered on Redgrave Park farm in Suffolk. The authorities swung into action and immediately began culling the 6,500 free-range birds, including 5,000 turkeys, on the premises.

Yesterday it emerged that a further 22,000 birds in Suffolk and Norfolk are due for the chop. The condemned birds are based on four farms in the area that are managed by the same subsidiary of Gressingham Foods, Redgrave Poultry. The farms shared many of the same workers, the firm told the BBC, and are therefore judged likely to have come into "dangerous contact" with Redgrave Park's birds.

The extended cull is precautionary, the government says, the goal being to stop the virus spreading any further. But some industry watchers are concerned that if the virus is not contained, the supply of turkeys could be hit and drive up the price of Christmas dinner.

As the nation's Christmas dinner suffers an early culling, the price of a turkey for Christmas lunch could hit £100, according to some reports. Officials in the poultry industry claim such fears are unfounded, and speculation about rising prices is spurious.

According to the British Poultry Council, we consume some 17 million turkeys in Britain each year, 10 million of them at Christmas. As the National Farmers Union explained to The Independent that although the loss of the 28,000 birds is sad, and a worry for farmers, it wouldn't make much of a dent in national turkey production.

But Norfolk and Suffolk are turkey-farming hotspots. Inside the tightest protection zones set up as soon as the outbreak of H5N1 was reported, there are some four million registered, farmed birds (ducks, chickens and geese as well as turkeys). In the wider restricted area, there are another 25 million.

The government's acting chief veterinary officer, Fred Landeg, said: "I must stress again that poultry keepers in the area must be extremely vigilant, practice the highest levels of biosecurity and report any suspicions of disease to their local Animal Health office." ®

*Traditionally, of course, it should be goose. But assuming bird flu goes on the rampage, geese will be just as absent from our tables, right?

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