H7 bird flu at Australian farm; 'no impact' on food safety

First outbreak of virus Down Under in 15 years prompts Japan to ban chicken and egg imports

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 November, 2012, 3:05am


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Australia, a major exporter of foodstuffs to Hong Kong, has reported its first outbreak of deadly bird flu in 15 years, on a poultry farm in New South Wales.

Following the announcement Japan said it would ban imports of poultry and eggs from Australia.

Australian authorities said yesterday the highly pathogenic bird flu virus should be contained by a cull of 50,000 chickens, although they do not know what caused the case at an egg farm.

The Department of Primary Industries (DPI) said all chickens at the property in Maitland, 160 kilometres north of Sydney, would be destroyed after the H7 virus was detected last week.

The H7 strain is highly pathogenic to birds but is not related to the H5N1 strain, which was first detected in 1997 in Hong Kong and has since caused hundreds of human deaths.

DPI chief veterinary officer Ian Roth said the strain did not present any risks to food safety from poultry and eggs.

The owners of the infected farm were quarantined as experts tried to find the source of the virus, often wild birds.

"It generally spreads by the movement of birds from the farm and there certainly hasn't been any of those," Roth told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.

"We're in the process now of doing the tracing and also surveillance in the area, and so far the tracing looks quite good. There hasn't been much potential for spread," he said.

Australia's agriculture ministry reported the outbreak to the Paris-based animal health body OIE on Thursday.

Australia's Chicken Meat Federation said the industry produced around 1.12 million tonnes a year, worth around A$1.9 billion (HK$15.2 billion), with most used domestically and only around 5 percent exported.

Japan imported 0.9 tonnes of meat in 2011 and 1.9 tonnes in the two years before. Imports of eggs totaled 2.1 tonnes in the three years through last year. Japan asked Australian authorities to provide more details about the outbreak, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture said.

Chicken Meat Federation executive director Andreas Dubs said most exports were for pet food, while chicken feet were exported to some countries where they are eaten by humans. Major export destinations for Australian chicken are Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Vietnam and South Africa.

Many countries, including Japan, have automatic measures to stop imports when there is an outbreak of bird flu and they will be in discussions with Australian authorities to check if the outbreak is contained and exports can be restored.

"[An import ban] is a fairly normal thing for countries when you have an outbreak of avian influenza. A number of countries have requirements that you are free of AI," Dubs said, using the acronym AI for avian influenza. "It is a short-term reaction. It is not really a longer-term concern for us."

South Korea, which imported 5.2 tonnes of Australian poultry last year, is conducting a review, an official said.

China's quarantine bureau has not issued a ban but analysts said it is not a major importer of Australian poultry.

Australia suffered an outbreak of a bird flu in February, leading to a similar ban by Japan.