Japan renews poultry imports from Britain, Philippines

Japan on Wednesday resumed poultry imports from Britain and the Philippines following steps in those two nations to contain bird flu outbreaks, officials said. Japan suspended imports of all British poultry and related products on April 29 following an outbreak of a mild form of bird flu at a poultry farm in Norfolk , eastern England . Tokyo had also banned imports from the Philippines in July 2005 in the wake of an outbreak there.

A Japanese Agriculture Ministry statement said that Tokyo would continue the ban on products from Norfolk , but that poultry from other parts of Britain would be allowed into Japan . The statement said the outbreak there involved the mild H7N3 strain of bird flu, not the deadly H5N1 type of bird flu that has ravaged flocks and killed at least 124 people worldwide since 2003. The outbreak, it said, had been contained in Norfolk .

H5N1 has not turned up in domestic British poultry, although the strain killed some parrots and wild birds at a British quarantine center last year. In the Philippine case, Japan found that sufficient safeguards were in place and no new outbreaks had been detected there since August last year, Agriculture Ministry official Norio Kumagai said.

Japan suspended imports because the Philippine government initially reported that the outbreak involved an H5 strain before further tests confirmed it as the weaker H9N2, Kumagai said. Japan had kept the ban until the final results were provided by the Philippines last week, he said, adding that the extent of the Philippine outbreak last year was unknown, although no human cases have been reported. Bird flu hit Japan two years ago for the first time in decades, but no human H5N1 infections have been confirmed.

Several outbreaks of the less-dangerous H5N2 strain at poultry farms near Tokyo last year led to culling of hundreds of thousands of birds. In 2005, Japan imported merely 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of chicken and other poultry meat, and nearly 375,000 birds from Britain , the ministry said. Japan imported 1,643 tons from the Philippines last year until the July ban.

The partial resumption of British imports relieves concerns about a possible poultry shortage in Japan , whose chicken supply comes mostly from Europe . Person-to-person transmission of bird flu is rare, but it is one of the biggest concerns about the disease. Scientists say that if the virus mutates into a form easily passed between people, it could cause a pandemic that could kill millions, reports the AP.