Defra has announced a temporary easement to poultry marketing rules and improved compensation for avian flu-hit producers

The government is to allow turkey, goose and duck producers to slaughter their flocks early so they can be frozen, before being defrosted and sold as chilled in the run-up to Christmas.

The move – part of a new avian flu support package announced today – comes in the wake of the UK’s “worst ever” outbreak of the disease, with more than 200 cases now confirmed across the country over the past 12 months, according to Defra.

In consultation with the Food Standards Agency, Defra said the temporary easement to marketing rules in England would “give farmers certainty over business planning”.

Owners of flocks threatened by bird flu will therefore have the option of the early slaughtering and freezing of birds, which will then be permitted to be defrosted and sold to consumers between 28 November and 31 December.

It follows increasingly desperate calls from the poultry sector for the introduction of the measure, as reported last week by The Grocer, after more than 300,000 of the UK’s 4.5 million-strong festive turkey flock had been lost to bird flu by mid-October.

Kelly Turkeys MD Paul Kelly said the losses, which were expected to double to more than 600,000 over the coming weeks, was now threatening the supply of turkey to consumers for Christmas. Other estimates have suggested up to half the festive turkey flock could be lost by December.

Defra has also responded to industry calls for greater financial support by announcing a change to its compensation scheme for producers affected by the flu outbreak. Under new plans, the government will allow compensation to be paid to farmers from the outset of planned culling, rather than at the end.

“This will allow us to provide swifter payments to help stem any cashflow pressures and give earlier certainty about entitlement to compensation,” Defra said. “The payments better reflect the impact of outbreaks on farmers.” 

Christmas turkey flocks decimated as ‘worst ever’ bird flu outbreak looms

However, the move does not extend to producers who have lost birds to the outbreak before the need to cull – a measure that had been called for by suppliers such as Gressingham, which lost its entire goose flock earlier this month.

“Farmers and poultry producers are facing real pressures as a result of this avian flu outbreak, and we know many are concerned about the impact on their flocks,” said farming minister Mark Spencer.

“We hope the practical solutions announced today will help provide greater financial certainty. We very much appreciate the continued co-operation from the sector as we battle this insidious disease and will continue to keep the situation under close review.”

The announcement follows the implementation of a national Avian Influenza Prevention Zone across the UK, meaning bird keepers must implement strict biosecurity measures to safeguard their flocks from this highly infectious disease.

In addition to this, a regional housing measure remains in place across Norfolk, Suffolk and parts of Essex, where keepers must house their flocks until further notice.

In a letter published in this week’s Grocer, British Poultry Council CEO Richard Griffiths stressed the temporary introduction of any easement of poultry marketing rules to allow the sale of defrosted birds would be clearly labelled, and monitored and enforced by Trading Standards officers.