The number of turkeys on supermarket shelves this winter will not dwindle due to avian influenza, said environment minister Mark Spencer on Tuesday, adding that ministers are confident in the UK’s “robust” supply chains and extra biosecurity measures introduced in recent weeks.
Birdkeepers in England will be legally required to house their poultry indoors in a bid to tackle the spread of bird flu from November 7.
The move is an extension of measures already in force in Suffolk, Norfolk and parts of Essex from early October.
“We are told that this year the outbreak has spread at a much faster pace than previously, with the chief vet telling parliamentarians this morning that in terms of the number of cases we are six weeks ahead of where we were at this time last year,” shadow environment minister Daniel Zeichner told MPs.
“What impact is this going to have on our food supplies? We know that the disease affects turkeys and geese much more severely. The minister says there is no immediate threat but it is reported we already have a 20 per cent supply issue on free range turkeys.
“So, can he tell us — is he confident we will have enough turkeys for Christmas?”
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“When it comes to food supplies we are confident that our food supply networks are enough to make sure that we have turkeys for Christmas,” Mr Spencer replied.
“We have the most robust supply chains available to us and there should not be a problem as long as we continue to keep the strictest biosecurity moving forward.”
The minister had earlier told MPs: “We recognise the significant financial pressure an outbreak of avian influenza can have on producers. Current rules are designed to encourage good biosecurity standards. This remains a top priority.
“On Wednesday October 26, to help producers deal with the impacts of the UK’s worst ever avian influenza outbreak, Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) confirmed changes to the avian influenza compensation scheme, which will be implemented in addition to a relaxation of rules for sale on previously frozen seasonal poultry products.”
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Mr Spencer said farmers who breed turkeys, geese and ducks for their meat “will have the option to slaughter their flocks early and freeze products which can then be defrosted and sold to consumers between November 28 and the December 31 2022”.
The minister said it is “essential” the industry plays its part in helping to prevent further outbreaks.
He told MPs there had been “too much uncertainty in the past about the entitlement to compensation in the event of a confirmed case of avian influenza outbreak”, adding: “We are therefore altering the operation of the existing compensation scheme for avian influenza to give earlier certainty about the entitlement to compensation.
“This will be linked to decisions taken at the start of the planned culling rather than at the end.”
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But not all Conservative MPs are convinced, with some worried about the future of their constituents’ farms.
“The compensation arrangements that he has outlined will do very little to help small producers like Kelly Turkeys in my constituency, who lost 9,800 birds out of a flock of 10,000 in the space of a weekend before the vet even arrived,” said former minister Sir John Whittingdale.
Ludlow MP Philip Dunne said it has been difficult to provide adequate compensation to “poultry farmers whose livelihoods are being devastated by the impact of this disease”, if their flocks die of bird flu rather than being culled.
Conservative former vaccines minister Maggie Throup asked what advice ministers would give to members of the public if they find a dead bird, saying good information is “key to minimising the spread of the virus”.
“My advice to members of the public is not to interfere with those dead birds, not to pick them up and not to move them, but to report them to their local authority if they see them dying on the roadside,” said Mr Spencer.