November 2007: Alan Beat looks at the wider implications of avian flu, and promotes a different way forward

In the September CS, I reviewed the available scientific data to show that the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of avian flu originated within the intensive poultry industry. I considered how the virus then spread internationally through movements of commercial poultry and products, and that wild birds and backyard flocks are not vectors, but victims of such spread.

I also discussed UK and EU control policies in the light of the Bernard Matthews outbreak of 2007, and how the rules, designed to minimise disruption to trade, were ‘interpreted’, or simply broken, to enable international business to carry on as normal while smaller scale flocks were unfairly penalised.

I concluded that smallholders have little to fear from AI itself, but everything to fear from unscientific and trade-driven policies imposed to control it.


Let’s now take a closer look at the international trade that lies behind such policies, to arrive at better ways of dealing with animal diseases.

Since the second world war, UK production of table poultry has been transformed from a locally based cottage industry into a massive international agribusiness dominated by giant corporations. Bernard Matthews is a typical example of this trend He started in 1950 as a one-man business and grew into a global company with a £400 million annual turnover and 7,000 employees. The UK side of the business rears eight million turkeys a year on 57 farms throughout Norfolk, Suffolk and Lincolnshire on feed from its own mills. It has become the largest producer of turkeys in Europe, with facilities in Germany, Hungary and New Zealand. The ‘product line’ has greatly expanded beyond oven-ready birds to provide the retail sector with a variety of frozen, fresh and chilled products (1).

Overall, during 2006, the UK poultry industry slaughtered 800 million broilers, 19 million ducks, 16 million turkeys and 36 million boiling fowl (spent laying hens and broiler breeders) to produce 1,528 million tonnes of poultry meat. An estimated 55,000 people are employed across the industry (2).

But digging a little deeper beneath such headline figures, a complex web of international trading emerges. During 2006, some 3.9 million broiler chicks were exported while 2.3 million were imported, 1.6 million turkey poults (hatched birds) were exported while 1 million were imported, and 233,000 tonnes of poultry meat were exported while 451,000 tonnes were imported. There is similar two-way traffic in other categories of live birds, hatching eggs, feedstuffs and waste products (3). Around 75% of this trade is conducted within Europe, but significant amounts of poultry meat are imported from countries such as Thailand and Brazil.

The scale of the international poultry trade is mind-boggling. For example, across eastern Europe, huge numbers of live chickens are imported: in 2004, Romania accounted for over 16 million live birds, Russia and Ukraine for almost 12 million each, and Turkey for nearly 2 million. The real numbers could be far higher, since there’s a well-known underground poultry trade throughout the region. The Hastavuk Company in Turkey operates Europe’s second-largest hatchery, with the capacity to produce over 100 million hatching eggs per year, a substantial portion of which are exported to eastern Europe and the Middle East.

In Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam, the transformation of poultry production has been dramatic, with production jumping eightfold in just 30 years, from around 300,000 tonnes of chicken meat in 1971 to 2.4 million tonnes in 2001. China’s production of chicken tripled during the 1990s to over 9 million tonnes a year. Nearly all of this new capacity is provided by large-scale intensive units, concentrated near major cities and integrated with international production systems (4).


Backyard farming is the crux of food security and income for hundreds of millions of rural poor in Asia and elsewhere. Most rural households in Asia keep at least a few chickens for meat, eggs and fertilizer and they’re often the only livestock that they can afford.

The advancing industrialisation of poultry farming has had far reaching effects around the world, as backyard and peasant farmers find their traditional sources of food and employment threatened or destroyed by markets increasingly controlled by multinational corporations, supported by the financial and regulatory frameworks of governments and international agencies such as the FAO.

“The main beneficiaries of the surge [of poultry meat production in Asia] are large-scale, urban, capital-intensive producers and processors, and urban middle and upper class consumers. The overwhelming majority of the poor do not benefit,” said Hans Wagner, Senior Animal Health and Production Officer with the FAO’s Asia-Pacific office (4).

These effects are paralleled within more affluent countries of the western world. Here in the UK, for example, many small scale producers have been driven out of business over recent decades. Rural independence for these farmers and workers within their own community has been replaced by uncertain employment at centralised sites under factory conditions for low wages. Indeed, these jobs are often deliberately targeted at an immigrant workforce that will tolerate the low pay and poor conditions on offer.

Operations at the Bernard Matthews plant in Holton, Suffolk are tailored to the needs of Portuguese employees that form the bulk of the plant’s 1,300-strong workforce, recruited through advertising campaigns in Portugal. They’re trained in their native language, and work in sections with roughly one Portuguese interpreter per 10 manual workers. Along with smaller numbers of Asian, African and east European migrant workers, the Portuguese are almost invariably basic workers, paid a little over £200 a week. Work can be tough, physical labour with complaints of long hours, boredom, cold temperatures and rules forbidding talking ‘in line’. In nearby Great Yarmouth, this workforce sustains a satellite infrastructure of Portuguese cafes, restaurants, bars and shops (5).


When designing strategies for the control of AI, there are historical parallels to consider. In 1926, a ship from the Far East docked at Newcastle upon Tyne. Rubbish from the ship containing chicken carcasses was fed to local chickens that died from a previously uknown disease, then named after the port of entry. (6) Newcastle disease spread rapidly around the world’s poultry farming areas.

The endemic mild form of the disease has little commercial impact. It typically affects only a few susceptible birds and rarely results in significant mortality among free range flocks. But the virus becomes a major problem when it enters large intensive units, where close proximity of large numbers of host birds results in copious quantities of aerosol virus, which can then spread by air movements to other flocks. In this situation of rapid amplification and spread, the milder sub-types can mutate into a highly pathogenic form.

An Australian outbreak in 1998 killed 10,000 chickens and led to the slaughter of another 100,000. The outbreak took authorities by surprise – tight quarantine controls had kept the country free of highly pathogenic strains for 60 years. Research showed that an endemic mild strain of Newcastle disease had entered an intensive unit and there mutated into a more virulent form.

The Australian authorities didn’t respond by blaming backyard flocks or wild birds. Instead, they made vaccination compulsory for farms with over 500 birds. Smaller flocks were excluded because “all the available evidence indicates that, for such a mutation to occur, it needs a large number of birds in a small area to generate the virus mutation process. In simple terms, a small number of birds cannot generate enough virus for the mutation process to occur” (4).


Experience of H5N1 in south east Asia should also inform any strategy for disease control. In sharp contrast to neighbouring countries, poultry in Laos have remained mostly in the care of smallholders, who raise free-range local chicken breeds near their dwellings for meat and eggs consumed by the household or sold locally for income. The few intensive production units that exist are mostly clustered around Vientiane, the capital.

If free-range farming and migratory birds were responsible for spreading AI, disease would have spread widely across such a country. In fact, when H5N1 swept through the region in 2004, Laos didn’t suffer the widespread outbreaks of neighbouring countries. There were 45 outbreaks: 38 on intensive units around the capital, four on other intensive units, and three on smallholdings close to commercial outbreaks. Disease was quickly eliminated by closing the border to imports of poultry from Thailand and culling chickens at infected commercial operations.

The company implicated in the spread of H5N1 to commercial units in Laos was Charoen Pokphand (CP), Asia’s biggest producer of poultry and poultry feed. In Thailand, CP outsources production to about 10,000 growers, controlling the entire production chain from feed to retail poultry sales. It’s the biggest supplier of broiler chicks in China – a hatchery in Lanzhou Province produces nine million chicks a year. In Indonesia, it dominates the chicken feed industry and is the leading supplier of chicks for broiler and layer farms. It controls half of the industrial poultry sector in Vietnam, while in Turkey its subsidiary controls around 12% of poultry production. Outbreaks of AI in all these countries, as well as in Cambodia and Burma, have often centred on commercial units linked to CP in one way or another, through the purchase of inputs like day-old-chicks or feed imported from Thailand (4).

The Laos experience clearly indicates that the key to safeguarding poultry and people against AI is an extensive, genetically diverse, locally based structure of production and consumption that is isolated from contamination by the international industry.


In their efforts to monitor the potential spread of H5N1, regulatory authorities in both the EU and UK have largely targeted resources on migrating wild birds. The only monitoring of commercial poultry that takes place is an annual survey of a small number of production units, selected at random and taken to represent the great majority of untested units. There’s no routine surveillance of international trade in poultry or poultry products, despite clear evidence that such movements pose by far the greatest threat of disease transmission. Nor are such movements regulated or restricted in any way until an outbreak of disease has already occurred. Even the temporary restrictions applied during an outbreak may not suspend international trade movements, as the Bernard Matthews experience clearly showed.

Regulators argue that highly pathogenic forms of disease become evident very quickly on intensive units (an implied acceptance of the risk posed by such production methods) so there’s no need to conduct routine testing across the industry. However, experience across Asia and elsewhere has often been that initial outbreaks are concealed by industry and/or denied by national authorities, until the sheer scale of mortalities results in whistle-blowing that forces admission. Even with complete transparency, no outbreak can be identified by clinical signs until several days after first infection has occurred, greatly increasing the risk of onward spread of disease. Such policy is destined always to be chasing fires, instead of preventing them.

A scientific, evidence-based policy would instead focus on the routine monitoring of commercial poultry movements, especially imports. This is achievable using RT-PCR technology of rapid test devices that are fully portable in the field and operated by non-veterinary personnel. The technology was first developed in the US. It can be applied to any viral disease and was offered to UK authorities during the 2001 FMD epidemic. This offer was refused on the grounds that the technology wasn’t validated. Other non-validated tests and slaughter policies were nevertheless used.

The Royal Society report on that epidemic required that “specific and sensitive pen-side (tests) are developed for FMD and other major diseases, are validated as quickly as possible, and are available on a large scale for use in the field” and that “Defra should explore the potential for portable RT-PCR machines for use in the field”

In April 2002, I met with Andrew King, head of molecular biology at Pirbright Laboratory, who assured me that such devices had been developed in the UK and were already undergoing trials in his laboratory.

In 2003, the Royal Society’s follow-up report for FMD noted “significant development work being undertaken on portable tests to aid rapid diagnosis in the field, much of it in the US… hence it is important for Defra to engage in regular information exchange. These RT-PCR devices offer not only more rapid results, but also are sufficiently sensitive to detect virus before clinical signs are apparent. Despite this progress in veterinary tests, it is not clear that full regard is being taken of advances in the medical field.” (7)

RT-PCR technology has since been deployed across the animal disease laboratory network of the US after millions of dollars spent on validation, and is being deployed in the field in many countries. For example, in July 2007, it was reported that the US had given Sri Lanka “4,500 suits of personal protection equipment, 1,500 rapid test kits, and 40 decontamination kits crucial to a quick and decisive response to mitigate the possibility of an AI epidemic” (8).

But as 2007 draws to a close, the Pirbright laboratory website states: “the development of technologies… that ideally can be deployed in situ without transferring the samples to a central laboratory is a current research priority… We are particularly interested in the development of portable and mobile assay formats that might be capable of achieving extremely rapid molecular diagnosis close to suspect cases of disease” (9). And while Pirbright continues to research technology that has been available on the open market for several years, Defra have still not publicly acknowledged the deployment of any rapid field test device in the UK, or defined a timetable for their validation in the future.


What is the official UK stance on vaccination against AI? Defra’s policy is not to vaccinate poultry against AI “at the present level of risk, because currently available vaccines do not make vaccination effective or efficient as a disease control or prevention” (10). Whenever the scientific basis of this policy is questioned, government ministers repeat the advice of Professor David King, who said the existing H5N1 inoculation would mask signs rather than prevent spread of the virus in birds (11). Such statements refer to the possibility that disease challenge shortly after vaccination, and before full immunity has developed, may result in live virus being harboured by vaccinated birds which show no clinical signs. This doesn’t matter because decades of experience worldwide with a range of viral diseases has shown that such ‘carriers’ are unable to spread disease to other unvaccinated animals. It’s extraordinary that King, and some other scientists within Defra, continue to deny such basic truths.

Vaccination has certainly been used to successfully control and eradicate H5N1 epidemics. In March 2007, a conference in Verona of 400 world scientists considered the available evidence and concluded that vaccination is an important tool in the worldwide battle against the H5N1 virus. The conference recommended that poultry should be vaccinated against AI “particularly in endemic countries and when other control measures such as stamping out, movement controls of poultry and biosecurity cannot stop the spread of the virus” (12).


MAFF was heavily criticised for focusing solely on the interests of agribusiness during the 2001 FMD crisis, and was replaced by Defra as part of an exercise to regain public confidence. A process of consultation began that appeared to offer representation to livestock owners that had previously been excluded, including small scale farmers, rare breed and pet owners. Considerable effort and financial commitment, however, was required for rural delegates to participate in stakeholder meetings held on a regular basis in London.

Since 2001, I’ve worked closely with Mary Marshall through the Smallholders Online forum to represent the interests of smallholders at the highest levels. Mary has regularly made the journey to London because she believed that an open and transparent process of consultation would make a real difference to Defra’s policies. She worked to bring independent scientific opinion to the discussion, in the belief that Defra would begin to listen. She was invited by the Institute for Animal Health at Pirbright to participate in an EU-funded project that included establishing a new internet forum for sharing information on the science of animal health and disease control (13). She was invited to become a rapporteur for the respected independent and moderated infectious diseases website ProMED-mail (14) and has co-authored and presented papers to international scientific conferences and journals (15).

It is therefore disappointing and disturbing to report that both Mary and I have become progressively disillusioned with the integrity of the consultation process. This, and Defra’s premature re-opening of the Bernard Matthews abattoir and processing facility, and failure at the same time to undertake adequate virus testing of domestic birds especially those that died in small numbers, leads us to conclude that Defra, as Mary says, is failing in transparancy and in its duty to supply national biosecurity.

Mary has consistently argued that as no animal health policy can work without the co-operation of all livestock keepers, all keepers must be genuinely included in its formulation. But during the early stages of the FMD outbreaks in Surrey, and Bluetongue in Suffolk this autumn, a situation that continues as I write this, Defra has reverted to meetings with ‘core’ stakeholders only (powerful trade interests), thereby excluding all others from representation. The way policy decisions are being taken with regard to sampling, slaughter, vaccination, determination of control zones etc, is not open or transparent, and the role and composition of the Expert Group that should be advising on policy isn’t clear. Mary has suggested that the group advising Defra should include a truly independent veterinary epidemiologist. The mathematical modellers of 2001, thankfully, appear to be gone, but Defra’s decision making processes remain unchallenged and without necessary scrutiny at the highest levels.

It seems that old habits die hard.

For Mary Marshall’s view of the way forward, see her co-authored paper Biological disasters of animal origin: The role and preparedness of veterinary and public health services by M J Marshall, P A Roger & J B Bashiruddin, Scientific and Technical Review, M Hugh-Jones (ed), Volume 25 (1), April 2006. Available online at /eng/publicat/rt/2501/PDF/20-marshall233-251.pdf


Despite the national disaster of 2001, and three separate inquiries supposed to draw lessons from it, UK animal health policy today remains focussed solely on continued international trade in livestock and their products.

I believe it’s essential to question the need for international trade in the first place. Is it really in the public interest for massive numbers of livestock and their products to be exported, when balancing quantities are imported at the same time? In her own report into AI, Caroline Lucas MEP writes: “Since the international trade in live poultry and hatching eggs seems to play such a crucial role in the spread of AI, an important precautionary measure must be to halt all such imports and exports. There is a huge trade in poultry products, including both live birds and their waste – the faecal matter and feathers processed and sold on as fish farm fertiliser or animal feed. Much of this trade takes the form of a bizarre great food swap, with millions of live birds passing each other as countries trade back and forth between themselves.” (16)

In April 2001, I argued that it made no financial sense to move balancing quantities of essentially the same commodities between different countries around the world. I used as an example the export of one-third of the UK lamb crop to Europe, while a matching amount is imported from New Zealand. The UK is self-sufficient in lamb and such international trade isn’t only pointless, its considerable environmental impact actually damages the public interest. My analysis was published in the Financial Times, a respected economic platform, and drew a large response of emails from around the world, many from professional economists and other academics. All were supportive and no counter-argument was put forward.

National governments cling to the view that valuable exports and employment are generated by the activities of international trading corporations, but any objective analysis shows this to be a travesty of the true position. As we’ve seen, the so-called export trade is an illusion, largely balanced by equal imports of the same products, and quite often, they are, in fact, the very same products, sent abroad for one process and returned for another! This “bizarre food swap” simply exploits the imbalances between national economies, to the detriment of local labour everywhere, and benefits only the few who profit from international corporations.

How does it benefit the national interest to replace local employment by an immigrant workforce? Or to transport UK-hatched turkey poults to Hungary for rearing and slaughter, then return the carcases here for packing? Proponents will argue that such ‘efficient’ methods have driven down the price of poultry to a price everyone can afford, but in reality, the massive social and environmental costs have been ‘externalised’ and are borne by the nation, not by the corporation. Such ‘cheap’ food is another illusion.

It may have seemed naïve, 10 years ago, to argue for the dismantling of international trade and a return to locally based production, but the twin drivers of global warming and peak oil are dramatically changing perspectives worldwide. Now, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that such radical change is inevitable, whether we like it or not, and that in the foreseeable future, the international trading of identical commodities will become progressively more difficult to justify on both environmental and financial grounds. Whatever can be produced locally, will have to be produced locally – and this will return the control of animal disease into local hands, where it best belongs.

Global experience indicates that the best defence for the UK against AI, and other viral livestock diseases, is to re-develop an extensive, genetically diverse, locally based structure of production and consumption that is isolated from contamination by the international industry, in other words, smallholders – see A disease-free UK for the steps we should take.We should start rebuilding this network now, for time may be even shorter than the scientific consensus on global warming and peak oil currently suggests.


The independent website carries a wealth of up-to-the-minute news and information plus a searchable archive.


I must publicly thank two unsung heroines of the animal health debate since 2001: Mary Marshall, and Mary Critchley who founded and runs the Warmwell website. Both have devoted considerable amounts of time, energy and money to promote open and informed scientific debate on animal health issues. Smallholders everywhere owe them a great debt of gratitude.













12. Avian Pathology (August 2004) 33(4), 405 /412 – Vaccination of chickens against H5N1 avian in?uenza in the face of an outbreak interrupts virus transmission by Trevor M. Ellis, Connie Y. H. C. Leung, Mary K. W. Chow, Lucy A. Bissett, William Wong, Yi Guan and J. S. Malik Peiris

13. – currently unavailable




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