Bird flu: Hungary meat imports defended

Imports of turkey meat from Hungary continued for days after an outbreak of deadly bird flu was confirmed at a farm in Suffolk.The government minister responsible has defended the decision to allow transport of poultry from Hungary, where cases of H5N1 had been found in late January, saying to stop meat arriving would have broken EU rules.

Imports of turkey meat from Hungary continued for days after an outbreak of deadly bird flu was confirmed at a farm in Suffolk.

The government minister responsible has defended the decision to allow transport of poultry from Hungary, where cases of H5N1 had been found in late January, saying to stop meat arriving would have broken EU rules.

David Milliband, the environment minister, said government scientists had not called for an import ban and to put one in place would have harmed the industry beyond Suffolk.

An outbreak of H5N1 was confirmed at the Bernard Matthews' farm at Holton, near Halesworth, on February 2 - three days after turkeys started dying there.

Initial theories suggested the virus, which has killed 164 people worldwide, had been brought to the UK by a wild bird.

But Mr Milliband said it was now clear that there had been “a bio-security lapse” at Holton that had allowed contamination to reach turkey sheds on the farm from the on-site processing plant.

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Asked if it would have been prudent to stop meat imports from Hungary under the circumstances, he added: “That would be in contravention to the EU free trade rules.

“If we had done that, the EU would have taken a very dim view of what we had done and may well have taken measures against us.”

In a television interview earlier today, Mr Miliband said he would have imposed a ban on imports from Hungary if vets had told him that this was a sensible step to protect public health.

“There are two reasons we didn't do that. First of all, the vets didn't say that for public health reasons that was a sensible thing to do,” he said.

“And secondly, there will be poultry farmers around Britain saying 'Hang on, if there's an outbreak in Suffolk, why should I be penalised outside that area?

“To have invited the sort of retaliation from around Europe and elsewhere for all of the British poultry industry would not have been a sensible thing to do,” he added.

“What we have done, rightly, is to follow the scientific advice and ensure that EU rules are rigorously implemented.'”

The Food Standards Agency is still investigating whether the virus could have entered the food chain.

Experts have, however, insisted that the risk to human health is very small.