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France fights panic in wake of bird flu outbreak

French President Jacques Chirac urged consumers not to panic Saturday, hours after the government announced the European Union’s first outbreak of deadly bird flu in commercial poultry.
French gendarmes man checkpoint near Versailleux
French police man a checkpoint near Versailleux, south eastern France Feb. 26 as a car leaving the vicinity of a turkey farm riled by the H5N1 virus drives across a disinfectant box.Robert Pratta / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

French President Jacques Chirac urged consumers not to panic Saturday, hours after the government announced the European Union’s first outbreak of deadly bird flu in commercial poultry.

Chirac said chickens and eggs remained safe to eat as he munched a piece of the famously succulent chicken from the Ain region, where the lethal virus was confirmed in turkeys.

Panic among consumers is “totally unjustified,” Chirac said during a visit to open the annual Paris Agriculture Fair. “The virus in question ... is automatically destroyed by cooking. So there is absolutely no danger.”

Yet fear already was setting in, raising worries for a multibillion-dollar industry that makes France the premier poultry producer among the EU’s 25 nations.

Japan’s decision Friday to suspend imports of French poultry and poultry products, including foie gras, signaled the potential impact even before the confirmation that the deadly H5N1 virus had decimated a farm of more than 11,000 turkeys at Versailleux in southeastern France.

Hong Kong also has temporarily suspended imports of French poultry, Brenda Chan, a spokeswoman of Hong Kong’s Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, said Sunday.

In France itself, there has been a drop of up to 30 percent in poultry purchases in recent weeks. Chirac noted the “economic and social consequences” of panic and said the French must not fall into such a trap.

The lethal strain has spread from Asia to at least 10 European countries and Africa, and scientists fear it could mutate into a form that is easily transmitted between humans, sparking a pandemic. The disease has killed at least 92 people, mostly in Southeast Asia, according to the World Health Organization.

China on Sunday warned the public of a possible “massive” bird flu, and said two more people had contracted H5N1. The official Xinhua News Agency also quoted Agriculture Minister Du Qinglin as saying there was another new bird flu outbreak in eastern China.

Indonesia recorded its 20th human death from bird flu Saturday and India said two poultry farms in western Gujarat state had been contaminated by the virus in that nation’s second known outbreak.

No human cases of bird flu have been reported in the EU.

French authorities sealed off the infected turkey farm Thursday. The farm’s veterinarian said nearly all the 11,000 birds there were sick and hundreds had died. Surviving birds were slaughtered.

The farmer’s family was quarantined and vehicles passing through a protection zone around the farm were required to ride through a 100-foot-long trough of disinfectant.

News that bird flu had spread to farm stocks was particularly bitter for France, which has been working for months to prevent and prepare for an outbreak.

France has some 200,000 farms that raise 900 million birds each year. In 2004, the latest year for which figures are available, the French poultry sector generated more than $3.6 billion in revenues — more than 20 percent of the EU’s total poultry production.

The head of France’s powerful farm union, Jean-Michel Lemetayer, asked Chirac to demand financial aid from the EU.

Agriculture Minister Dominique Bussereau said Friday that authorities were perplexed about how the virus appeared in commercial poultry despite precautionary measures.

The farm is located in a protection zone set up after two wild ducks died and were confirmed infected with H5N1. There was speculation the outbreak may have been caused by duck droppings on straw placed in the turkey pens, France’s Poultry Industry Association said.

Claude Lassus, the veterinarian for the Versailleux farm, told France-Info radio Friday that he believed the straw theory was the only explanation for the infection.

Authorities in the eastern German state of Brandenburg said Saturday that two wild birds had tested positive for the H5N1 strain of bird flu, the first cases in that part of Germany.

The state’s Agriculture Ministry said the two dead birds — a swan and a duck — were found around the town of Schwedt, northeast of Berlin and close to the border with Poland.