France confirms EU's first H5N1 bird flu outbreak in commercial poultry

The European Union's first outbreak of the lethal H5N1 strain of bird flu in commercial poultry was confirmed Saturday in France, the EU's largest poultry producer.

But President Jacques Chirac, trying to keep the lucrative market alive, sought to ease fears by insisting that eating poultry is safe and panic is unjustified.

The Agriculture Ministry said lab tests confirmed H5N1 in turkeys at a farm of more than 11,000 birds in the southeast Ain region.

The farmer, Daniel Clair, said in an interview published Saturday in the daily Le Parisien that he discovered "400 cadavers" among his more than 11,000 turkeys on Thursday and many of the rest were sick. "I immediately understood."

The remainder were slaughtered even before the presence of the lethal virus was confirmed. The farm has been sealed off and Clair and his family are living under a virtual quarantine.

However, Chirac said there is "no danger in eating poultry and eggs" and that panic among consumers is "totally unjustified."

"In any case, the virus in question ... is automatically destroyed by cooking. So there is strictly no danger," the French president said as he opened the annual agriculture fair in Paris where poultry has been banned as a precaution.

Poultry purchases dropped by up to 30 percent even before the announcement, reports AP.

According to Bloomberg, France will spend an extra 52 million euros ($62 million) to help the poultry industry on top of 11 million euros already decided in subsidies and tax breaks. Asked whether further government measures may be needed, Chirac said today that "we'll see how things go."

Bird flu reached the European Union earlier this month but had until now only been found in wild birds. Cases were confirmed in Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Romania and Slovenia.

Sales of chicken, duck and turkey have been dropping for months across the 25-nation EU, the world's third-biggest poultry exporter, amid fears that avian influenza could enter the food chain through bird meat.

EU official this week approved the vaccination of millions of birds in France and the Netherlands, the EU's largest poultry producers.

O.Ch.