Lapses revealed in bird flu report

A Government investigation into what caused a bird flu outbreak on a north Suffolk turkey farm has revealed a catalogue of hygiene lapses. When officers from Defra visited the infected Bernard Matthews plant at Holton, near Halesworth, they discovered seagulls feeding on meat trimmings in bins.

A Government investigation into what caused a bird flu outbreak on a north Suffolk turkey farm has revealed a catalogue of hygiene lapses.

When officers from Defra visited the infected Bernard Matthews plant at Holton, near Halesworth, they discovered seagulls feeding on meat trimmings in bins.

Gulls were also roosting on sheds and carrying scraps of meat around the plant, while polythene bags containing meat products were found in uncovered bins.

Meat Hygiene Service records for the past year show staff were verbally warned about problems and non-compliance with regulations on a number of occasions, prior to the outbreak of bird flu last month.

Each of the problems had, however been quickly corrected and no further enforcement action had been taken.

Interim findings of the government investigation into the outbreak, which killed 2,000 birds and led to a further 160,000 being culled, also revealed the 'most plausible' source of the virus was meat imported from Bernard Matthews' factories in Hungary.

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Other theories, including the suggestion the virus had come from wild birds were deemed highly unlikely.

Defra's report lists a number of possible ways the virus could have entered initially one shed on the farm, followed by three further sheds.

An inspection carried out on February 6 this year showed small birds, rodents and rats could have got inside.

Plastic-covered bales of wood shavings stored outside, water leaking in through a roof and contaminated footwear or clothing were other possible means of contamination.

Outlining the findings, Defra's deputy chief vet Fred Landeg said: “The most plausible hypothesis for the introduction of the virus is still associated with the importation of turkey products from Hungary.”

But he added a final conclusion about the source of the outbreak may never be reached. The reports did not however, show any evidence of illegal or unsafe movements of poultry products between Hungary and the UK.

Bernard Matthews welcomed the findings, saying it confirmed its conduct had always been legal, but vowed to leave its voluntary decision to halt the movement of meat between the UK and Hungary in place “until further notice.”

In a statement the company said: “Today's report indicates that the authorities have identified ways in which bio-security can be “The detailed nature of the epidemiological report also confirms that Bernard Matthews followed all of Defra's bio-security regulations at that time.”

But Defra stressed the reports were only interim, and that it could not rule out the possibility the company would be prosecuted.

A spokeswoman said: “These are just interim reports. Investigations are still ongoing so we can't comment further regarding a prosecution.”

Fears have also been raised that gulls and vermin feeding on meat may lead to the spread of the disease in wild birds, but there is no evidence at present to suggest any other wild of farmed birds in the UK have the infection.

Commenting on the findings at the Holton plant, Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Chris Huhne MP said the report highlighted "serious bio-security lapses" at the Bernard Matthews plant.

“Allowing wild birds to feed on raw poultry meat left in the open is highly irresponsible, as it could lead to widespread contagion,' he said. “The impression is still of an organisation in denial about the seriousness of events at its plant”

Samples taken from birds in 21 other sheds at the Suffolk site after the bird flu infection came to light revealed that H5N1 was present in three of them.

The virus may have spread because of a 'reduction of biosecurity measures'after lab results first revealed the H5N1 infection, Defra's report says. Staff moving between sheds as they cleaned up the site could have caused this spread.

Previous tests showed the bird flu strain found in poultry in Suffolk was "essentially identical' to the one which caused outbreaks in Hungary.

Defra has started a programme of trilateral talks about avian flu involving officials from the UK, the EU and Hungary.

A ban on licensed bird gatherings in non-restricted parts of England was lifted today. A ban remains in place in the restricted zone across Suffolk and Norfolk.

A temporary shooting ban in the 3km protection zone and the 10km surveillance zone was also lifted.