Culling of thousands of ducks at a farm operated by the UK’s largest producer of duck products is expected to begin today after a bird flu outbreak.
British Government vets are investigating if the case of “highly pathogenic” H5 avian flu, found on the farm operated by Cherry Valley in Nafferton, near Driffield, East Yorkshire, in England is linked to a similar case in the Netherlands.
The European Commission backed emergency measures to contain outbreaks of bird flu in both countries after Environment Secretary Liz Truss confirmed that a virus found at a duck breeding farm in East Yorkshire was the “highly pathogenic” H5 strain of avian flu.
Officials have been quick to reassure the British public that the strain found at the farm is not the H5N1 strain of the virus which has led to deaths in people, and that the risk to public health from the outbreak was “very low”.
But experts have warned further outbreaks could emerge in the coming days.
The alarm was raised by a private vet on Friday and subsequent tests by Government vets confirmed the H5 strain.
A six-mile (10km) restriction zone has been put in place and all poultry on the farm will be culled in an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease.
John Vernam, managing director of UK operations at Cherry Valley, said: “We are working closely with Defra and other agencies and are confident that the controls in place are proportionate to the risks involved.
“We will be continuing our vigilance over the coming days and, like all poultry producers in the area, will be working with the authorities in the ongoing surveillance programme.”
On its website the company says it is the largest manufacturer of duck and duck products in the UK, rearing seven million pekin ducks a year to the “highest welfare standards in the industry”, mostly supplying the Chinese catering sector.
The cull of 6,000 ducks at the affected farm in Yorkshire comes as the transport of poultry and eggs throughout the Netherlands was banned after an outbreak of the H5N8 bird flu strain was confirmed at a chicken farm in the central province of Utrecht.
Ms Truss told MPs: “We have taken immediate and robust action to control this outbreak and prevent any potential spread of infection.”
She added: “The Food Standards Agency have said it does not pose a risk for food safety for UK consumers. The chicken and turkey people eat continues to be safe.”
The East Yorkshire outbreak is the first serious case of bird flu since 2008, when the H7N7 strand was found in free-range laying hens near Banbury, Oxfordshire.
Most types of bird flu are harmless to humans but two types – H5N1 and H7N9 - have caused serious concerns.
Chief veterinary officer Nigel Gibbens said the Cherry Valley farm at the centre of the alert had good bio-security in place.
As a result, the risk of spread is “probably quite low”, he said, but warned more cases could follow and, because of the risk of wild birds spreading the disease, urged farmers and their vets all over the country to be alert to the possibility of disease.
Keith Warner, president of the British Veterinary Poultry Association (BVPA), also said that, while previous outbreaks of bird flu had been effectively controlled on one or two isolated farms, there could be more incidents in the latest outbreak.
“Everybody in the UK that owns birds in any number should be on biosecurity lockdown,” he urged, advising no unnecessary visits to farms, transport or sharing of equipment, and that all free-range birds in the restriction zone should be kept inside.
Concerns have been raised about the impact on the poultry industry in the run-up to Christmas.
Chris Dickinson, NFU county adviser for Yorkshire, said: “It is obviously a worry for poultry farmers but I just ask farmers to keep up high levels of biosecurity and Defra will inform us of their findings in the coming days.
“It is a busy time coming up for poultry farmers but poultry isn’t just for Christmas, it’s a big industry all the year round.”
British Poultry Council chief executive Andrew Large said: “Consumers should continue to support British poultry meat, assured that there is no risk in eating cooked poultry, and that is a message echoed by the Food Standards Agency and the World Health Organisation.”