Thousands of customers may have to go without fresh turkey this Christmas following the latest bird flu outbreak in Norfolk and Suffolk, according to risk management experts.
As The Grocer went to press, up to 30,000 turkeys, ducks and geese had been culled after the virulent H5N1 strain of bird flu was discovered on Sunday at Redgrave Park Farm, a Gressingham Foods subsidiary in East Anglia. The farm supplies own label turkeys for the likes of Waitrose.
The supermarket was due to source about 2.5% of its turkeys from Redgrave, but said it did not foresee any availability issues.
However, many farms could find themselves unable to fulfil contracts if the latest outbreak of avian flu spreads through the UK according to insurance broker and risk management consultants Aon.
A third of turkey production is in East Anglia - the rest is in Yorkshire, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. A 3km protection zone and a 10km surveillance zone have been set up around the Redgrave farm and a restriction on the movement of birds is now in place.
Of the big four, only Asda has reported a change in poultry sales and claimed it had seen a surprising 20% uplift it suspected was the result of panic buying. Several chains nevertheless said they were working on contingency plans for Christmas in case the disease spread.
"We are monitoring both bird sales and the situation constantly and are working on a contingency plan," said Sainsbury's, which buys duck products from a different Gressingham Foods site but has no other contract with the company.
Poultry suppliers have been quick to reassure consumers that they would not have to face Christmas without turkey. "Retailers say there's been no reaction in turkey sales so far," said Charles Bourns, NFU poultry board chairman. "I don't believe it'll have a big impact on turkey for Christmas."
Frozen turkeys have been slaughtered all year round and stored for the festive period, so any availability issue will be with fresh turkeys, which account for 50% of the Christmas market, about five million birds.
As The Grocer went to press, further culls were due to take place at Grove Farm in Botesdale, which is already in the protection zone.
Chris Kaufman, Unite national officer for food and agriculture, said the main concern was to isolate the outbreak. "The authorities learnt a great deal from the Bernard Matthews outbreak this year so should swing into action like a well-oiled machine," he said.
A spokesman for Aon said: "The customer perception regarding their Christmas bird needs careful management from retailers. They need to keep up constant dialogue with suppliers and strong communication with shoppers."