Background update:Mar 9, 2016

France gets to grips with AI situation

After being overwhelmed with outbreak after outbreak of avian influenza in the last 2 months, France is slowly getting to grips with the situation. The country’s veterinarian and government bodies were slow to respond at first, but now discuss stringent measures to tackle the devastating disease.

2 months into the worst avian influenza crisis ever in France, the country takes what it calls radical steps to stop the disease in its tracks. The plan is to halt the restocking of duck and geese farms with the consequence that foie gras production will cease. About 70% of all foie gras production will be influenced by the measures. That said, birds which are already on farm can be kept until slaughter age and processed in the regular way. The French Ministry of Agriculture expects all premises to be birdless in April. Mandatory cleaning and disinfection of all affected farms will be finished by mid-year. The plan of some experts to cull all susceptible animals in the affected departments in the south east of the country was discarded. However, government officials are confident that the current measures will be satisfactory. The French minister of agriculture Stephane le Foll adds in a comment that he expects it will take 3 to 6 months before the highly pathogenic virus is stamped out.

AI outbreak in France shocked many

On the 24th of November 2015 France’s neighbouring countries were alarmed that the veterinary services isolated a HPAI virus in the Dordogne region in a backyard chicken flock. This discovery led to extra surveillance, the results of which came as a shock to all involved. Within a month the number of outbreak locations rose to above 60 in an area covering 200 by 300 kilometers. Scientists isolated no less than 3 different highly pathogenic strains of avian influenza, H5N1, H5N2 and H5N9. A situation never seen before anywhere in the world, according to the head of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) Bernard Vallat.

Avined's Professor Stegeman is not surprised by the extent of the outbreak in France. [Photo: Ton Kastermans]

Surprisingly almost no animals died from the virus itself, which is one of the main reasons the virus could spread to such an extent before being detected. The bulk of the cases found were virus isolates after a regional screening of duck and goose farms. These animals were immune to the clinical signs of avian influenza. This fact led to the decision not to cull the birds to reduce the virus reservoir, but to allow farmers to keep the birds until they reached slaughter age and weight.
The decision was criticised by northern European countries because immediate stamping out is standard practice there and has proven results in battling outbreaks. Some poultry organisations frowned upon the France's plan to stop with mandatory screening before slaughter in the period around Christmas time. “The sudden drop in new cases found probably doesn’t give the right picture concerning the virus pressure in the affected region,” Dutch organisation Avined stated.

Poultry export restrictions

It may come as no surprise that a number of countries imposed export restrictions on poultry products coming from France after the first virus was found. China, Hong Kong, South Africa, South Korea, Algeria and Egypt were the first to impose a ban starting in November and the list grew as time progressed. Japan, the largest importer of foie gras, stopped importing the product if produced after 23 October, taking into account incubation time of the virus. Most important buyers from within the European Union and Saudi Arabia acknowledge the regionalisation strategy which is in place in France and still import from outside affected areas.

Impact of breeding stocks

On a breeding level the restrictions cause difficulties. Both Groupe Grimaud and Hendrix Genetics have their basis or at least pure line flocks in France. Their breeding stock isn’t located in the affected areas, so there is a large effort underway to get the regionalisation system accepted in the most important export destinations. Especially clients in Asia are worried that a prolonged export ban could disrupt the supply of 
grandparent stock for layer and broiler production. Almost all countries were breeding companies that have pure lines - Germany, the Netherlands, France, Canada and the United Kingdom have had their share of avian influenza and the subsequent fall out the last year.

Outbreak explained

Professor and avian influenza expert Arjan Stegeman from the University of Utrecht sees the severity of the French situation, but says, "this outbreak doesn't really come as a surprise. In France there are many duck and goose farms with free range systems and low biosecurity. Statistics show that they find many low pathogenic viruses for years, with only the minimum required level of monitoring. The LPAI they found in France is only the tip of the iceberg, so one knows that there are plenty LPAI viruses around.'' Stegeman's assessment of the current situation is that the current outbreak was triggered as an LPAI mutated into a highly pathogenic variant. "A classical way of introduction by mutation and subsequent spread.'' The first reported case was in a small layer flock, with positive duck- and goose flocks nearby. "The layers acted as sentinel chickens, but weren't the first to be affected. At that time one could have known they were just looking at a fraction of the number of actual infections.''

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