A blanket ban on the import of live birds into the European Union is expected to be agreed today as more cases of the most deadly strain of avian flu are confirmed.
The move was demanded by British ministers after the death in quarantine of a parrot that contracted the potentially-lethal H5N1 form of the virus, which has killed more than 60 people in South-East Asia.
An effective compulsory ban across Europe requires EU Commission approval, and the recommendation will then be considered – and almost certainly endorsed – at talks between national veterinary experts on the EU’s Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health (SCFCAH).
The UK's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds supported the move last night as a key step in stopping the spread of the disease.
The British government’s chief veterinary officer Debby Reynolds said that Britain could not act on its own over an EU-wide ban, which requires a Commission decision.
Meanwhile, she promised any necessary investigation into British quarantine rules, which may have allowed the parrot from Surinam to be quarantined in the same space as imported birds from South America and Taiwan.
The parrot had tested negative for avian flu before shipment to Britain. Some of the birds it came into contact with have died and their bodies are being tested for the disease.
Yesterday, Europe’s Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou consulted EU agriculture ministers meeting in Luxembourg before joining fellow Commissioners in Strasbourg to advise on the need to back Britain’s call for an EU-wide import ban on live birds.
Such a ban would cover parrots, caged birds, pigeons and birds of prey, 235,000 of which have been imported into the EU in the last three months alone.
EU measures taken already include bans on EU imports of live birds from Turkey, Romania, the Greek island of Chios, and Russia following suspected or confirmed cases of the H5N1 strain of bird flu.
The latest confirmed outbreak - the presence of H5N1 in another part of Russia – came as Mr Kyprianou was consulting the agriculture ministers about an EU-wide ban which the RSPB says should be immediate.
It should also be permanent, said the RSPB’s Head of Species Conservation Julian Hughes.
“We have serious conservation concerns about the continued legal trade in birds from the wild, and there is no evidence that a ban on bird imports would drive the trade underground.”
On disease prevention, he said: “The pet trade is a dangerous back-door route for avian flu to get to the UK, and we welcome the UK government’s support for a ban across the EU“.
It was reported today that the dead bird had been in quarantine at Pegasus Birds, in Brentwood, Essex.
But a spokesman at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) declined to name where the bird had been, saying: “As a matter of course we always discourage people from approaching any disease site and will therefore not be naming the facility.
“It is not our practice to release personal information of the owner.
“Investigations continue into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of these birds. Until it is completed we are not in a position to comment.”
Brett Hammond, director of Pegasus Birds, was unavailable for comment yesterday.
The firm contracted additional security guards yesterday to protect its site and to answer phone calls.
One guard, who refused to give his name, said the director was not available to speak.
“We have been employed to protect the premises from the press, and I have been told to refer all enquiries to Defra,” said the guard.
It is believed that the parrot, which was from South America, was infected by a bird from Taiwan being kept in the same quarantine compound.
Elaine Toland, director of the Animal Protection Agency, said her charity is calling for a ban on live bird markets following concerns over bird flu.
She said: “The public health risks connected to the wild bird trade are now obvious and officials have raised concerns for some time.
“We believe the trade poses a greater risk than migratory birds. One of the real problems is that some areas of the trade are still operated illegally and do not quarantine their birds.”