Over 300,000 turkeys have already been lost to the UK’s worst outbreak of avian influenza

Supermarkets and suppliers are calling on the government to allow turkeys to be frozen now but defrosted later and sold as fresh before more of the 4.5 million-strong UK flock is wiped out by bird flu.

Over 300,000 turkeys have already been lost, according to Kelly Turkeys MD Paul Kelly, threatening the supply of this year’s festive flock. Mortality numbers could easily double to more than 600,000 – about 13% of the flock – over coming weeks, he warned.

At the time of writing, there had been 53 individual outbreaks of bird flu at sites across the UK since 1 October, according to Animal & Plant Health Data Agency data, around a fifth of which originated in East Anglia. A total of 1.2 million birds have now died from this year’s rapidly escalating avian flu outbreak across the UK. 

See the APHA’s interactive bird flu outbreak map here: 

Such a level of outbreaks so early in the traditional bird flu season means the UK has – in the past three weeks – already hit 34% of the past 12 months’ total of 158 bird flu outbreaks, a situation itself described as the “worst ever”, which led to the death or culling of 3.3 million birds in total. 

However, last year was a “walk in the park” compared with the current outbreak, warned Kelly, who said he had personally lost 32,000 turkeys – though none of his premium Kelly Bronze birds – to bird flu since the start of October.

He was aware of at least three smaller-scale producers that had been forced to cease production over the past week following on-farm outbreaks.

And everything was now “stacking up for a shortage” of turkeys and potential price increases in some retailers this Christmas, with some smaller retailers and butchers’ shops already struggling to source supply, Kelly said.

The sector had been gearing up for a less dramatic festive season over the summer months, with suppliers having tapered production to match staffing levels – following last winter’s fears that festive turkey supplies would be affected primarily by labour shortages (alongside the challenge of bird flu and soaring production costs) across the farming and processing sectors.

“It was looking OK, but this is like meltdown,” he said. “Things are not looking good and the way it’s going, state aid [for producers and suppliers] will be needed.” 

A senior food sector source, who said the severity of year’s outbreak was “really serious”, echoed his comments. 

“Outbreaks normally kick in around December or January so to be as virulent as this appears in October is worrying,” they said.

As a result, retailers and suppliers were now “looking to kill turkeys early”, to avoid the further spread of the virus through the poultry sector, they added.

Producers such as Gressingham Foods – which lost its entire stock of geese to avian flu earlier this month – have called for a temporary derogation in government food safety restrictions so that poultry (and festive turkey in particular) that is slaughtered now in a bid to avoid the outbreak can be frozen and sold defrosted as fresh “as is the case with all other meat proteins”.

In response, a Defra spokeswoman said the government “recognised” the pressure faced by the sector, and had introduced “a range of measures to contain the disease including declaring an Avian Influenza Protection Zone across the whole of the UK”.

It was “working closely with the poultry industry to ensure that producers have the support that they need during this difficult time”, she added, but declined to comment directly on the derogation call.

However, in light of the severity of the current situation, British Poultry Council CEO Richard Griffiths said he would support “being able to sell previously frozen birds in an unfrozen state”.

But “it would it would have to be for a defined and limited time period, specific products, and the labelling would have to clearly indicate that it had been previously frozen,” Griffiths stressed, and would likely also have to use the square ID mark so that it is for domestic use only.

Defra introduces bird flu prevention zone – but no national housing order

The NFU, however, was far more cautious on such a proposal. While he understood the motive of such calls, poultry board chair James Mottershead warned (as Griffiths did) that it could be seen as an “easy way to get more cheap frozen imported turkeys on the market produced to lower standards”.

Such a derogation would need to be restricted to British poultry, he added, while labelling would also need to be clear due to the food safety implications around selling defrosted poultry as fresh – a point Griffiths also highlighted.

“There needs to be a lot of thought behind this,” said Mottershead.

Defra announced on Monday that the chief vets of England, Wales and Scotland (followed later by Northern Ireland) had agreed to a country-wide move to an Avian Influenza Prevention Zone with tightened biosecurity measures, to “mitigate the risk of the disease spreading amongst poultry and captive birds”.

England’s chief vet Dr Christine Middlemiss warned “we expect the number of cases to continue to rise over the coming months as migratory birds return to the UK, bringing with them further risk of disease that can spread into our kept flocks”. She added in a BBC interview this week that the scale of the outbreak and the level of environmental infection prevalent, was something the UK had “never seen”.

It came less than a week after the announcement of a regional mandatory housing zone for captive birds in the East Anglian poultry farming heartlands of Norfolk, Suffolk and parts of Essex.

Kelly added bird flu was spreading through flocks and killing birds on a massive scale before the APHA could even get culling teams to farms. The senior food source said the APHA was “working its nuts off” to get to affected farms but the scale of the outbreak meant it was “taking an eternity to kill infected flocks”.

With current government rules only paying out compensation for animals that had been culled, and not to animals that had already died from infection, the severity of the outbreak meant Gressingham Foods – which is also at risk of losing its turkey and duck production – was now calling for greater compensation for lost birds from an improved government support package.

William Buchanan, co-owner of Gressingham, told The Grocer the poultry sector and affected farmers were “in urgent need of support”.

Mottershead, meanwhile, added that support for the sector – including the development of a new vaccine – was now desperately needed in order to safeguard the long-term future of the UK poultry industry. “If we don’t have action there will be no turkey or duck industry next year. I know of several big players asking ’why risk it?’. Which would be a crying shame.”

The sector and government was “working incredibly hard to deal with the outbreaks and to mitigate the impacts on Christmas production,” said the BPC’s Griffiths, who has been one of many over the past few weeks to call for a swift move to national housing measures in a bid to slow the spread of the outbreak.

Defra last week told The Grocer the need for a nationwide housing order was being kept “under constant review”.

Gressingham calls for state aid as bird flu wipes out goose flock