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Bird Flu Damages EU Economies

Slaughtering infected birds in the Ukraine. Copyright AFP.
By Stefan Nicola
UPI Germany Correspondent
Kehl Am Rhein, Germany (UPI) Mar 09, 2006
Bird flu is spreading its ugly wings over Western Europe, causing its first noticeable damage to national economies. Just as the average American does not want to miss out on burgers and good cut of steak, life, for many French, is incomplete without some "poulet roti" (roast chicken) or "foie gras" (duck paté).

This goes far in explaining why the bird flu has caused near-hysteria in and around Paris.

The rooster has been the country's unofficial symbol since Gallic warriors fought Julius Caesar's Roman legions some 2,000 years ago. The bird can be seen on official seals as well as on the chests of national soccer team members.

The bird is also important to its economy: France is the European Union's largest poultry producer and exporter.

Since bird flu cases were first detected on a turkey farm in the southeast Ain region, poultry sales have plummeted by as much as a third in France. Some 40 countries, including Russia and Japan, two of the largest importers of French poultry, have issued an import ban on French birds.

The European Commission earlier this week called on the countries to end the ban, arguing the outbreak has been successfully contained and that exports from the rest of the country are safe -- so far without success. According to French figures, farmers there breed some 900 million chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese and other fowl per year. Their birds are healthy, farmers say, and there is no evidence that cooked poultry poses any health risk at all.

French President Jacques Chirac, in a bid to defend his farmers and restore poultry sales, has said there is an "unjustified panic" spreading across France. The industry remains concerned.

"If the sales slump continues the way it has, we are going to lose 80 million euros ($95 million) a month," Christian Marinov, head of the Confédération Francaise Aviculture, the French poultry farmers' trade union, told United Press International. He added the industry's two foremost goals were to communicate to consumers that cooked poultry is safe, and to lift the import bans.

Next-door in Germany, the virus' deadly H5N1 strain has not yet spread from wild birds to domestic poultry, but has infected several domestic cats, a move that has Agriculture Minister Horst Seehofer concerned.

"The virus has crossed the border to mammals in several cases, so it came significantly closer to the human being," he said Tuesday night on a TV show.

So far, the virus cannot spread between humans. But experts fear it will mutate and turn into a global pandemic with millions of casualties. Ninety-five people have already died of the disease, mostly in Asia.

In Germany, the virus was first detected on the Baltic Sea resort of Ruegen and has since spread to several states across the country.

German poultry farmers have seen sales plummet up to 25 percent.

"We number the current economic damage at roughly 140 million euros ($167 million)," Thomas Janning, spokesman for the ZDG association of German poultry producers, told UPI via telephone. "We are currently in talks with federal and state governments about financial support measures."

He added it was a constant communications war to tell consumers that cooked poultry is safe. Recent reports that gourmet restaurants in Berlin are taking poultry dishes off their menu only spread the hysteria, he said.

In Italy and Greece, poultry-related sales fell by as much as 50 percent. And not only are poultry farmers affected; related companies, such as those that provide machinery or stalls have also been harmed.

German tourist organizations fear travelers may cancel trips to the land of beer and sausage if the virus spreads further. The outbreak on Ruegen has led to several cancelled vacations there.

Moreover, some 1.5 million guests are expected to flock to Germany this summer to attend the FIFA Soccer World Cup. The tournament may create as much as 50,000 additional jobs, according to government figures, and the country's economy is banking on the extra money spent during that time.

And then there is the ultimate horror scenario: if the disease turns into a pandemic, it will cost the European economy up to $1 trillion, said Deutsche Bank in a study published earlier this week.

Source: United Press International

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