French health minister: Eat poultry! Support industry!

Health Minister Xavier Bertrand urged consumers Monday to stay calm and keep eating poultry in response to France's first case of bird flu, and said the government would spend whatever money is necessary to fight the virus. Bertrand, in an interview with AP Television News, said the government had set aside Ђ 730 million (US$866 million) for fighting bird flu. "There will be no financial obstacle to preparing our country to bird flu."

He insisted that no farms in France, Europe's largest poultry producer, have been hit by the lethal H5N1 bird flu virus, and that the only confirmed case was one wild duck that died last week. That case "is a message telling us to deal with this problem by keeping our composure," Bertrand said. "France has been prepared for a long time, since October 2004, for the risk of avian flu."

He urged consumers to keep eating poultry. "Of course we can keep eating poultry without changing our consumption habits." Despite governments' efforts to reassure the public that eating cooked poultry remains safe, poultry farmers said consumption has fallen and caused at least hundreds of millions of euros (dollars) in losses.

France's chief farmers' union, the FNSEA, demanded Monday that the government free up funds to support poultry producers' efforts to prevent and fight the flu. The number of calls to a government bird flu hot line has mushroomed since the first case was confirmed in France last Friday. Calls averaged 200 a day before the confirmation and jumped to 3,000 a day over the weekend and were expected to reach up to 6,000 on Monday, said Olivier Camino, general manager of the Acticall center.

EU agriculture ministers were meeting in Brussels on Monday to discuss ways to combat bird flu, including a Europe-wide program to vaccinate poultry. The lethal H5N1 bird flu virus has been confirmed in six EU countries: France, Austria, Germany, Greece, Italy and Slovenia. Elsewhere in Europe, cases have been confirmed in Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine.

Bird flu has decimated poultry stocks and killed at least 91 people in Asia and Turkey since 2003. Most human cases so far have been linked to contact with infected birds, but experts fear the virus could mutate into a form that is easily transmitted between humans, sparking a pandemic, reports the AP.


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