2007 Bernard Matthews H5N1 outbreak

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Map of the zones during the outbreak.

The 2007 Bernard Matthews H5N1 outbreak was an occurrence of avian influenza in England caused by the H5N1 subtype of Influenza virus A that began on 30 January 2007. The infection affected poultry at one of Bernard Matthews' farms in Holton in Suffolk. It was the third instance of H5N1-subtype detected in the United Kingdom and a range of precautions were instituted to prevent spread of the disease including a large cull of turkeys, the imposition of segregation zones, and a disinfection programme for the plant.

The cause of the outbreak was not determined. However, it was considered significant that Bernard Matthews regularly transports turkeys and turkey products between the UK and its plant in Hungary, and that the H5N1 strains previously found in Hungary, and those found at Suffolk, were effectively genetically identical.

Background[edit]

H5N1[edit]

Main article: H5N1

H5N1 is a subtype of the Influenza A virus, the viruses responsible for influenza in humans and many other animal species.[1] A bird-adapted strain of H5N1, called HPAI A(H5N1) for "highly pathogenic avian influenza virus of type A of subtype H5N1", is the causative agent of H5N1 flu.

HPAI A(H5N1) is considered an avian disease, although there is some evidence of limited human-to-human transmission of the virus.[2] A risk factor for contracting the virus is handling of infected poultry, but transmission of the virus from infected birds to humans is inefficient.[3] Poultry farming practices have changed due to H5N1.[4] The cost of poultry farming has increased, while the cost to consumers has gone down, due to fears from H5N1 driving demand below supply.[5]

Recent outbreaks in the UK and rest of EU[edit]

The outbreak was the third instance of H5N1 detected in the United Kingdom. The first outbreak occurred in October 2005 among exotic birds imported from Taiwan and South America at a privately owned quarantine facility in Essex, England.[6][7] The second instance involved a dead Whooper Swan found to have the virus in Cellardyke, Scotland in April 2006.[8][9] A corresponding incidence on a farm in south-eastern Hungary was confirmed by the European Commission on 25 January 2007.[10]

The outbreak[edit]

Initial signs of the outbreak occurred on Tuesday, 30 January when 55 turkey poults died and 16 had to be killed because they were sick. At least 185 more died the following day.[11]

It was not until 1 February that the deaths were reported to Defra. The farm was sealed off while tests were carried out, on samples taken from the dead birds, at the Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge, Surrey. Another 1,500 birds died on 2 February.[12] Then on 3 February 2007 the H5N1 causation was confirmed.[13]

A 3 km protection zone, 10 km surveillance zone and a restricted zone encompassing 2000 km² were set up.[14] Another 159,000 turkeys were slaughtered with the cull being completed on the evening of 5 February. Also on 5 February there was criticism that nearby farmers had not been advised as to the action to be taken.[15] Around 320 workers at the plant were given anti-viral drugs. Although a vet from the site was admitted into hospital, suffering from a 'mild respiratory illness' during the evening of 6 February, it was found not to be bird flu.[16] The plant was thoroughly disinfected, with cleaning complete on 12 February, and permission being given for production to resume.[17][18]

It emerged in a highly critical report from Defra that there was a series of biosecurity failings at the Holton plant, some of which were drawn to the company's attention in the past. These included "gulls were taking turkey waste to roosts on top of the turkey-house 500 m away" and "holes in the turkey houses could have allowed in birds or rodents".[19][20] Defra minister Jeff Rooker stated in a House of Lords debate on 22 February that the outbreak was "exclusively a Bernard Matthews Holton problem".[21]

Hungarian connection[edit]

The Government, on 8 February, admitted that the outbreak may have been caused by semi-processed turkey meat imported directly from Hungary, where the disease is prevalent, despite earlier in the week the Environment Secretary, David Miliband assuring the House of Commons that there was "no Hungarian connection".[22]

Bernard Matthews had been importing 38 tons of partly processed turkey meat on a weekly basis from their Saga Foods company, in Sárvár, Hungary, to a processing plant next to the farm. Though Saga Foods lies 165 miles (266 km) from where the recent Hungarian H5N1 outbreak had occurred, a company director admitted it was "possible" that some of the meat could have come from the exclusion zone. In response to this revelation, Whitehall expressed concern over biosecurity and whether any meat may have been distributed for human consumption in Britain.[23] On 9 February 2007 the Hungarian authorities started an investigation to try to establish whether there was a connection between the Suffolk and Hungarian outbreaks.[24] On 11 February the investigation revealed that turkey products were still being transported, in both directions, between the plant and Hungary with EU regulations being cited as the reason why a transport ban could not be imposed.[25]

The Hungary link was dismissed by the European Commission on 12 February.[26] Even so, the H5N1 bird flu strains found in Hungary and Britain were shown to be 99.96% genetically identical and, according to an analysis of the viruses by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge, Surrey, were almost certainly linked.[27] A leak from the Government's COBRA emergency committee indicated that the authorities were not aware of the Hungarian connection until an investigator found a Gallfoods delivery wrapper in a Bernard Matthews bin. This raised the possibility that the outbreak was due to a "third party abattoir, Gallfoods in Hungary, just outside the restricted zone". This abattoir might have been a middle man for contaminated poultry farming tools, feed, or product from within the restricted zone, such as a Bernard Matthews owned subsidiary in Hungary.[28]

In response to the incident and allegations of a cover-up, Bernard Matthews himself stated on 14 February "I'm sorry - but this has not been of our making. There's been absolutely no cover up at our end. I've been upset about allegations that we may have withheld information. That is completely untrue."[29]

Bernard Matthews was given permission to resume its shipments of poultry between the UK and Hungary from 17 February even though Defra indicated that Hungarian turkey products remained the "most plausible" cause of the outbreak.[19]

Consequences[edit]

By 8 February there was a lengthening list of countries that had banned the importation of poultry products from Britain including South Africa, Russia, Japan, and many others but a spokesman for the European Commission condemned the bans as "totally disproportionate" and the British Poultry Council pointed out that exports were less than 9% of the level of domestic sales.[30] Supermarket sales of Bernard Matthews branded turkeys halved after the onset of the outbreak as shoppers sought out alternatives. One of the biggest ongoing surveys of consumer confidence revealed that, by 13 February 2007, Bernard Matthews was the least respected and trusted brand in Britain.[31]

Following the outbreak the company confirmed, on 19 February 2007, that 130 workers would be laid off for a period of twenty days due to a drop in product sales.[32] The Transport and General Workers' Union then called for the government to provide compensation to the workers affected.[33] The Transport and General Workers' Union paid out hardship monies from union funds to union members, on top of any state benefits to which the laid-off workers were entitled and a one-off £100 payment from Bernard Matthews.[34]

A row broke out on 1 March 2007 when it emerged that the Government were paying compensation to the company for the 159,000 culled turkeys while laid-off workers were receiving nothing. At £3.75 each for hens and £3.53 for toms, the payout was then estimated at between £537,000 and £570,000.[35][36] In the event, though, the actual compensation bill came out at £589,356.89.[37] The crisis cost Bernard Matthews at least £20 m in lost sales and costs.[38]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (2002). "46.0.1. Influenzavirus A". Retrieved 2006-04-17. 
  2. ^ Ungchusak K, Auewarakul P, Dowell SF, et al. (January 2005). "Probable person-to-person transmission of avian influenza A (H5N1)". N Engl J Med 352 (4): 333–40. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa044021. PMID 15668219. 
  3. ^ Ortiz JR, Katz MA, Mahmoud MN, et al. (December 2007). "Lack of evidence of avian-to-human transmission of avian influenza A (H5N1) virus among poultry workers, Kano, Nigeria, 2006". J Infect Dis 196 (11): 1685–91. doi:10.1086/522158. PMID 18008254. 
  4. ^ "Council on Foreign Relations". Retrieved 15 February 2007. 
  5. ^ "Poultry sector suffers despite absence of bird flu". Archived from the original on 17 December 2007. Retrieved 29 December 2007. 
  6. ^ "Epidemiology Report on Avian Influenza in Quarantine Premises Essex", DEFRA, 11 November 2005
  7. ^ "Bird flu outbreak in United Kingdom reveals global vulnerabilities", JP Dudley BIOSCIENCE March 2006
  8. ^ "Swan tests confirm deadly virus", BBC News, 6 April 2006
  9. ^ "Bird flu swan was from outside UK", BBC News, 11 April 2006
  10. ^ "Bird flu approaching Romanian border", FOCUS News Agency, 25 January 2007
  11. ^ "Britain Culls 159,000 Turkeys in Outbreak of H5N1 Bird Flu", Environment News Service, 5 February 2007
  12. ^ "Bernard Matthews took 48 hours to report turkey deaths". The Evening Standard (thisislondon.com). 2007-02-03. Retrieved 2007-02-04. 
  13. ^ "Vets work to contain bird flu (Video)". 2007-02-04. Retrieved 2007-02-04. 
  14. ^ "Tests show bird flu is H5N1 virus". BBC News. 2007-02-03. Archived from the original on 5 February 2007. Retrieved 2007-02-03. 
  15. ^ "Little risk for Bernard Matthews workers", Sarah Brealey, EDP 24, 5 February 2007
  16. ^ "Vet tests negative for bird flu", BBC News, 7 February 2007
  17. ^ "Clean-up begins at bird flu farm", BBC News, 6 February 2007
  18. ^ "Farm hit by bird-flu to reopen", Natalie Paris, Daily Telegraph, 12 December 2007
  19. ^ a b "Bernard Matthews faces prosecution for failures at bird flu plant", Philippe Naughton, Times Online, 16 February 2007
  20. ^ "String of flaws found at Bernard Matthews plant", John Vidal, The Guardian, 17 February 2007
  21. ^ "Avian flu outbreak is "exclusively a Bernard Matthews" problem", Farmers Weekly, 2 March 2007
  22. ^ McCarthy, Michael (2007-02-09). "Bird flu may be linked to meat from Hungary, says Government". The Independent. 
  23. ^ "Bird flu plant imported turkey from Hungary", Charles Clover, The Daily Telegraph, 9 February 2007
  24. ^ "Hungary investigates British bird flu link", Reuters, 9 February 2007
  25. ^ " Britain is powerless to stop turkey imports", David Derbyshire, Daily telegraph, 12 February 2007
  26. ^ "Bird flu at farm not linked to Hungary", Natalie Paris, Daily Telegraph, 12 February 2007
  27. ^ "Tests confirm bird flu link to Hungary", John Vidal, The Guardian, 14 February 2007
  28. ^ "Did Matthews try to hide turkey imports?", Evening Standard, 12 February 2007
  29. ^ "Matthews: Not my fault", Victoria Ward, Daily Mirror, 15 February 2007
  30. ^ "UK poultry import bans", Pakistan Daily Times, 9 February 2007 See also: "EU slams bans on British poultry", Mark Bridge, Times Online, 6 February 2007
  31. ^ "Bernard Matthews loses sales", Daily Telegraph, 14 February 2007
  32. ^ "Bernard Matthews staff 'laid off'". BBC News. 2007-02-19. Retrieved 2010-01-01. 
  33. ^ "Workers must be compensated for Bernard Matthews lay offs". Transport and General Workers' Union. Retrieved 19 February 2007. 
  34. ^ Berry, Mike (April 2007). "T&G union calls for more compensation for culled workforce after Bernard Matthews gets £600,000 for dead turkeys". Personnel Today. 
  35. ^ "Bernard Matthews to get £600,000 compensation", Sarah Brealey, Norfolk Eastern Daily Press, 2 March 2007
  36. ^ "Anger at Bernard Matthews' £500,000 Bird Flu Pay-Out", Louise Male, Daily Mirror, 2 March 2007
  37. ^ "Bernard Matthews gets nearly £600,000 in bird flu compensation", Farmers Weekly, 19 April 2007
  38. ^ "Fury over Bernard Matthews compensation", Norwich Evening News, 20 April 2007