Bird flu hits foie gras farmers as lethal strains sweep Europe

Producers say about 600,000 ducks have been culled since December to tame the spread.
Producers say about 600,000 ducks have been culled since December to tame the spread.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (Bloomberg) - More than 3.5 million birds across Europe, including the ducks used for France's famed foie gras, have died from avian flu since October in the most far-reaching outbreak on the continent in four years.

New cases of highly contagious strains of H5N8 and H5N1 have been found in at least a dozen nations, killing birds or forcing farms to cull poultry to keep the virus at bay, according to data from the Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health.

The casualties include hundreds of thousands of ducks in France as well as turkeys, chickens and egg-laying hens in Poland, the European Union's top poultry producer.

The flu - often spread by migrating birds - is found during most winters, but this season's reports began earlier than normal and likely will continue through March, according to a Rabobank analyst. That compounds the difficulties already facing Europe's livestock sector from the spread of a similarly severe swine disease, rising feed-grain prices and restaurant shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic.

"It is really a high-pressure season," said Mr Nan-Dirk Mulder, senior global animal-protein strategist at Rabobank in Utrecht, the Netherlands. "The impact is so big this year that I'm afraid we're still going to see cases for the next two months."

The outbreak has spurred poultry import restrictions by nations, including China and South Korea.

More than two million birds died in Poland, and Germany reported almost 30 outbreaks. Turkey farms were affected in Hungary and the United Kingdom, and Denmark suspended sales of chickens outside the EU.

Still, immediate poultry shortages aren't likely. Markets were oversupplied throughout the Covid-19 crisis, and export restrictions may weigh on prices for the dark-meat cuts, like legs and wings, that often are sold abroad, Mr Mulder said.

The EU is the world's third-largest chicken shipper, and any lost sales may benefit rivals the United States and Brazil.

France - the world's biggest foie gras producer - has found more than 120 outbreaks in the south-west, according to its agriculture ministry.

The Aquitaine region is where most birds are raised to produce the luxury food, made from the liver of fattened ducks or geese.

Producers say about 600,000 ducks have been culled since December to tame the spread. France's agriculture minister expects hundreds of thousands more to be felled. Previous outbreaks in 2015 and 2017 prompted the killing of millions of birds, costing foie gras makers €350 million (S$567 million).

The current outbreak is "much more contagious" and lethal than prior years, said Mr Michel Fruchet, chairman of Cifog, a foie gras producers group. France raised 33 million fattened ducks in 2019.

"We're unfortunately reliving a difficult moment, with this avian influenza that continues to advance," Ms Marie-Pierre Pe, Cifog's chief executive officer, said on French broadcaster RMC radio. "We're powerless in the face of this virus, with the multiplication of outbreaks."

The French government requisitioned slaughterhouses in the south-west to speed up the culling, and the agriculture minister will visit the region on Monday (Jan 11).

Even with the current losses, the foie gras industry has time to prepare for year-end holidays, when most of the delicacy is consumed. Plus, there's extra stock as Covid-19 restrictions hurt demand last year, Mr Fruchet said.

Several Asian countries also are grappling with the virus, with South Korea culling nearly six million birds and India reporting cases in four states. Parts of Europe directed farmers to keep poultry indoors, and France will destroy birds within 1-5 km of outbreaks. Cifog would like the size of that zone doubled.

"We see these cases in winters usually, but this year the virus has been very, very aggressive and much more dangerous than ever before," said Mr Paul Lopez, chairman of Avec, an association of EU poultry processors.