The industry has yet to fully evaluate the effect the outbreak has had on turkey sales, which are already in 0.3% year-on-year decline, according to TNS. The bigger question is what effect it will have on arguably the most recognisable turkey brand in the UK.
Bernard Matthews told The Grocer it expected poultry sales to remain largely unaffected. But the outbreak is the latest piece of bad press for the company. In 2005 it axed Turkey Twizzlers after they were attacked by Jamie Oliver and last year two workers were filmed playing rounders using a turkey as a ball at his Haveringland farm.The only consolation is that the outbreak didn't occur when Christmas trading was in full swing. Even so, industry experts believe the company may actually emerge stronger from this incident.
"Bernard Matthews had a good contingency plan and dealt with it in a smart way," says Charles Bourns, chairman of the NFU's poultry committee. "It will show it in a good light. It is not going to diminish its reputation."
It is important to put the outbreak's impact on Bernard Matthews or turkey sales generally into context, he adds. The UK produces some 17 million turkeys a year, 12 million of which are killed at Christmas. "That leaves five million turkeys produced during the rest of the year - about 100,000 a week," he says. "The loss of 160,000 birds is only one-and-a-half weeks' worth of production. Let's not get it out of proportion."
Defra praises the company's response to a quickly evolving situation. The first signs of any problem occurred on Tuesday with the deaths of 71 birds and by Thursday night the state veterinary service had been informed. A two-day delay, but entirely reasonable, it says.
"From the chain of events we can see we were alerted quite quickly," says a spokeswoman. "A company can't notify us with the death of every bird. Bernard Matthews is a very large operation and we expect birds to die. A local vet assessed the situation and didn't suspect it was bird flu until the Thursday."
The company is keen to point out that its systems exceed Defra's biosecurity standards for combating avian flu and that there is no danger to humans from eating its products.
"Bernard Matthews has demonstrated that working together with the relevant bodies can result in a rapid and effective response," says sales director Neil Dargie.
Brand valuation consultancy Intangible Business is confident that the £80m brand will bounce back. "It will have a pretty serious impact on its short-term results, but as far as its reputation goes I don't think it will be diminished," says joint MD Stuart Whitwell. "It may have done its reputation a bit of good by showing that it acts professionally. Everyone can see it has done everything possible and has not tried to cover it up."
The initial reaction from retailers certainly suggests a consumer backlash has been avoided. Tesco announced an "inevitable dip in poultry sales", but Sainsbury's and Asda reported no initial change.
"There is no discernible change to orders from the top retailers," adds Ted Wright, chairman of the British Poultry Council. "There is likely to be a small dip but we are not expecting too much change." n