Operation at bird flu farm almost over

A MASSIVE cleansing operation at the Suffolk farm at the centre of the bird flu outbreak was due to finish last night - but it is still not known when movement restrictions will be lifted.

THE outbreak of bird flu in Suffolk may be linked to imported poultry product from Hungary, the Government said last night.

The potentially deadly strain of the H5N1 virus was confirmed at the Bernard Matthews farm at Holton, near Halesworth, last week, resulting in the slaughter of 159,000 turkeys and protection zones being set up.

Investigations into what caused the outbreak have been ongoing, but last night the Government said preliminary scientific tests showed the viruses in Suffolk and recent outbreaks in Hungary “may well be identical”.

Deputy Chief Vet, Fred Landeg said: “Our investigations have shown that one possible route of infection is poultry product imported from Hungary.

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“It is important that this is investigated thoroughly, along with all the other possible routes. We are working in partnership with the Food Standards Agency and the Health Protection Agency to carry out a thorough investigation. We are also working in close contact with the Hungarian authorities and the European Commission.

“The company involved has voluntarily agreed to temporarily suspend the movement of poultry products between their outlets in the UK and Hungary until the investigation is complete.”

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Earlier this week Bernard Matthews' commercial director, Bart Dalla Mura, said there was "not a remote possibility'' that the outbreaks could be linked.

He said Bernard Matthews owned Saga Foods, Hungary's largest poultry company, but its plant was around 160 miles from where the infected geese were found.

And last night he said he thought that Defra was ruling out all possibilities rather than nearing a conclusion.

"In terms of Defra ruling out every possibility, I'm not surprised at this latest development. If this turned out to be the source of the infection I would be very surprised. I think a lot of other people would be surprised too,'' Mr Dalla Mura said.

"Our plant in Hungary is more than 160 miles from where the infected geese were found. We do transport meat but we don't move live birds between Hungary and the UK. There is no suggestion of any infection at our Hungarian plant and no suggestion of any infection in turkeys in Hungary.

"If we had any concerns about our Hungarian operation we would say so - as we did at Holton. We operate with as much rigour in Hungary as we do in the UK. We don't believe that's the source and the Hungarian vets have made a statement to that effect. That's what I have been basing what I say on.

"It's too simple to say there was bird flu in Hungary and then in the UK and we own plants in both countries therefore that must be the answer. This is a very complicated area.''

The Health Protection Agency (HPA) said last night it was continuing to work closely with Defra and the FSA.

Meanwhile, a massive cleansing operation at the farm was due to finish last night but it is still not known when movement restrictions will be lifted.

Defra said a cordon around the Bernard Matthews farm is likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future.

A Defra spokeswoman said: “Until we are perfectly happy we have got to the bottom of this, the cordon will remain in place. It will be there as long as it takes as a precautionary measure.

“Material still has to be transferred from the site for incineration. Analysis will then take place to work out where the virus came from, although we may never know that.”

Health experts said yesterday they were expecting more workers at the farm hit to report illnesses.

Officials at the Health Protection Agency (HPA) said it was "probably inevitable" that more people would report ailments and need checks.

Experts said precautionary tests would be carried out but they did not expect anyone to test positive for the H5N1 virus.

Three people who worked at the Bernard Matthews farm have now undergone tests for the bug. Analysis showed that none was infected.

A HPA spokesman said: “It's the time of year when people are getting colds and viruses.

"Anyone with those symptoms who has been at the farm is likely to be concerned. It's probably inevitable that more people will report illnesses.”

Earlier this week, all 159,000 turkeys at the farm were slaughtered to prevent the disease spreading.

Vets confirmed H5N1 at the farm on Friday after significant numbers of birds started falling ill three days earlier.

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