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Britain admits bird flu could have entered food chain
posted by admin on 13/02/07

LONDON : British scientists approved on Monday the re-opening of a slaughterhouse on a site hit by an outbreak of virulent bird flu, but admitted the virus could have already entered the human food chain.

Environment Minister David Miliband insisted properly-cooked poultry products were perfectly safe for the public to eat, despite the outbreak which led to the culling of 160,000 turkeys at the farm in Suffolk, eastern England.

"There is no threat to human health from properly cooked turkey and other meat," Miliband told BBC News 24 after an afternoon of talks with experts and officials from Hungary, a suspected source of the outbreak.

The potentially lethal Asian-type H5N1 strain of avian flu was detected among geese in Hungary last month, the first such outbreak within the European Union since mid-2006.

The virus was later found on the British farm, and speculation has centred on links between the eastern English site at Holton owned by poultry giant Bernard Matthews and the Hungarian operations of Saga Food Ltd, which he also owns.

Nearly 160,000 turkeys were slaughtered in a massive operation which saw the birds first gassed, then their bodies transported to another plant for treatment and incineration.

But the story was complicated after it emerged that consignments of dead poultry had arrived in Holton from Hungary even as the birds were being culled - although the Hungarian meat went to a processing plant separate from the farm, albeit on the same overall site.

Miliband said on Monday the Food Standards Agency had inspected the slaughterhouse at Holton and come to the conclusion that it could be re-opened without risk.

"They have concluded there's no grounds to prevent the slaughterhouse reopening," he told BBC News 24 television.

But in an environment ministry statement, scientific expert Deirdre Hutton, while seeking to allay public concern over the outbreak, admitted that there were no 100 percent guarantees.

"The investigation so far has not found anything that raises the risk to public health," she said.

"It is still a possibility that infected poultry has entered the food chain," she went on, while adding: "The risk to public health remains low."

The government has admitted that cooked meat could have moved out of the 10-kilometre restricted zone around Holton following the confirmation of H5N1 on the farm on February 1.

On Monday, Miliband met scientists, vets and officials from his Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in London to assess the outbreak, the ongoing investigation and public health implications.

"We're still working on the hypothesis that there has been some poultry-to-poultry transmission. The genetic make-up is exactly the same as the Hungarian case (in January) but we are not dismissing any possibility," he added.

Bernard Matthews volunteered to halt movements of poultry between its British and Hungarian plants following the outbreaks, but insisted it had done nothing illegal.

"All these imports and exports are regulated and Bernard Matthews adheres strictly to all the regulations," said a company spokesman.

"Bernard Matthews continues to work closely with Defra to assist with its ongoing investigation. - AFP/de

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