Imported poultry meat 'most likely link'

Whitehall scientists revealed today that the most likely source of the bird flu outbreak at Bernard Matthews was “imported poultry meat” from Hungary.

Whitehall scientists revealed today that the most likely source of the bird flu outbreak at Bernard Matthews was “imported poultry meat” from Hungary.

It was “currently the most plausible” link for the outbreak of the lethal H5NI strain of bird flu in turkeys at Holton, near Halesworth.

The report by Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) concluded that there was “little evidence” to support initial suggestions of a link with wild birds.

The interim report therefore concludes that “currently the most plausible” route of transmission is associated with the importation of poultry products via Hungary.

Fred Landeg, deputy chief vet, said: “We are still yet to reach a final conclusion and our investigation will continue to be all-embracing in respect of possible means of introduction of the virus.

“It should nonetheless be recognised that we may never be able to conclusively pinpoint the original source of the virus."

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The interim epidemiological report investigated the source of the outbreak in shed 10 invoving some 8,000 turkeys at Holton. Subsequently, a total of 159,000 turkeys - all about eight weeks old - were slaughtered in order to contain the disease outbreak.

Defras revealed earlier this week that the strain of bird flu found on the Matthews farm, and confirmed on February 3, was “essentially identical” to that which caused the outbreaks in Hungary.

Mr Landeg said: “However, these reports set out the current state of expert thinking and explain the rationale behind the most plausible explanation for how transfer of the virus could have occurred.”

The joint final report by the Food Standards Agency, Defra, the Health Protection Agency and the Meat Hygiene Service, examined transmission via imported Hungarian turkey meat.

The FSA-led part of the investigation was launched to check whether meat from a restricted zone in Hungary had been brought to the Bernard Matthews plant at Holton, Suffolk.

This followed the hypothesis that there may be a link between the Hungarian outbreaks and the avian influenza outbreak in Suffolk. If it had been discovered that meat exported from Hungary to the UK had come from inside an avian influenza restricted zone, this would have been illegal under EU law.

The key findings

t There is no evidence that any meat entered the UK food chain from the restricted zones in Hungary

t From evidence gathered by the FSA investigation team it appears that all food importing and processing activities being undertaken at the Bernard Matthews Factory at Holton are in line with EC law

t The outbreak of H5N1 avian influenza does not alter the FSA's advice that properly cooked poultry meat remains safe to eat.

Andrew Wadge, Food Standards Agency chief scientist, said: “This report shows that according to the best available evidence no turkey meat from areas previously infected with avian influenza in Hungary was received at the Bernard Matthews plant in Holton.

“It is important to remember that this investigation has always been about the illegality or otherwise of meat imported into the UK, and not about food safety. We reiterate our advice that properly cooked poultry meat does not pose a food safety risk.”