France seals off turkey farm and slaughters birds

French authorities sealed off a turkey farm today that vets suspect may have been infected by the deadly bird flu virus, testing the dead poultry and slaughtering the rest, the Agriculture Ministry said.

French authorities sealed off a turkey farm today that vets suspect may have been infected by the deadly bird flu virus, testing the dead poultry and slaughtering the rest, the Agriculture Ministry said.

If H5N1 is confirmed at the farm, it would be the first time the disease has spread to poultry stocks in France – the European Union’s largest poultry producer.

The farm with more than 11,000 turkeys is in the same region of southeast France, the Ain, where the country’s first two cases of H5N1 bird flu – in two wild ducks – were detected.

The region is dotted with ponds that attract migrant birds and is home to Bresse chickens, famed throughout France for their succulent flesh.

A vet who suspected bird flu at the turkey farm raised the alarm this morning after a “high” death rate was observed, the ministry said in a statement.

An official at the local prefecture in Bourg-en-Bresse said that up to 90% of the turkeys had died.

Samples from the dead turkeys were sent for laboratory tests. Results were expected tomorrow, the ministry statement added. Surviving birds were being slaughtered this afternoon.

The farm’s residents were forbidden to leave unless necessary. A system to disinfect vehicles was being set up and protective equipment furnished to the farmer and officials working in the zone, the ministry said.

Hours earlier, the ministry announced the second case of deadly bird flu of the H5N1 strain in a wild duck, found in Bouvent, some 22 miles from the village of Joyeux where the first infected duck was discovered last week.

Special surveillance measures were put in place around Bouvent with protection zones of two and six miles around the site. Among other measures, vehicles were being checked to ensure that no poultry or other captive birds leave the region.

Last week, the French government ordered all domestic birds indoors or, in a few regions, vaccinated in a bid to halt bird flu. Violators could face fines of up to €734.30.

Besides dealing with the realities of bird flu, authorities were battling fears that a protracted crisis could devastate the industry. Poultry sales plunged by 25 to 30% since the first case of lethal bird flu was reported last week.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin was actively trying to reassure the French and encourage them to keep eating chicken and other poultry. On a visit yesterday to the Ain region, he was filmed eating chicken and cradling a chick.

“No poultry farms have been affected,” Villepin said today just hours before suspicions were raised about the turkey farm. He assured aid to farmers would be forthcoming.

President Jacques Chirac yesterday ordered the government to work to calm consumer fears.

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