My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare that I have a small flock of domestic chickens.
The Question was as follows:
To ask Her Majesty's Government whether poultry in the United Kingdom are at risk from avian influenza (bird flu) and, if so, what steps they are taking to protect them.
My Lords, EU rules prevent imports of birds and avian products which might transmit avian influenza from affected countries. Hence our risk analysis concludes that the likelihood of importing the virus in this way is insignificant. There remains, however, a low risk that the virus might be introduced by migrating birds although there are no direct migration routes from the affected countries in south Asia. The Government have a contingency plan for dealing with the disease in this country.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. Is he aware that H5N1 is a very complex virus? Ducks and wild birds can become carriers without being ill, but domestic fowl can become infected. Is not the real danger that this virus might spread from bird to human and then—the worst scenario—from human to human?
Yes, my Lords; all those contingencies might happen, but there is a relatively low probability of them happening as migratory birds do not migrate from south Asia to here. That is where the particularly virulent form of the disease—H5N1—is at present; it is much more virulent than other types. The disease could, however, be brought by migrating birds from Siberia, moving east-west, which crossed with the north-south migration. However, the probability of that happening is relatively low.
As far as concerns humans, there is not an established widespread pattern of humans catching this strain of avian flu. However, we are looking at the information coming from Vietnam and elsewhere. The Department of Health also has a contingency plan for covering any human epidemic.
My Lords, am I not right in thinking that we import feathers from China and other far eastern countries? How do we know that this disease is not transportable via feathers?
My Lords, feathers are still imported. There is no danger that clean feathers could transport the disease; if there were blood and faeces on the feathers, they would not be imported as they would not meet the standards set down. That has been made clear to those who are enforcing the regulations.
My Lords, there has been very close co-operation between the various enforcement agencies. Only a few weeks ago there was a meeting between the HSE, the Health Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Defra to ensure that we were covering all angles regarding the danger to fowl and to humans.
Will the Minister confirm that the import of poultry is banned from China specifically, because that is where the majority of the feathers, which do pose a threat, come from? It is known that the virus has crossed to humans and that a number of people have died in Vietnam as a result. Will the Minister ensure that the import of feathers is banned, because there is a risk of the disease being imported into the UK?
My Lords, there is not really a risk of clean feathers transporting the disease. The effect of checking whether the feathers are clean means that the risk is very low. It is extremely unlikely that the disease could be introduced by feathers. It is much more important that we concentrate on the real channels of possible infection, which is why there is a ban on poultry and poultry products from China and from the other countries in which the disease has broken out.
My Lords, in the light of the question of the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, are the Government satisfied that enough is known about the constitution of this virus for one to be confident that the antiviral agent which the Government are stockpiling will be effective against it? Secondly, is there any evidence that work is proceeding on the development of a vaccine against this particular strain of influenza virus?
My Lords, the priority of the health authorities is developing and, as the noble Lord says, stockpiling the antiviral drugs. They will be effective against all known strains of avian flu.
The question of a vaccine, however, is much more complicated. The direct transfer of this particular strain into humans is both unlikely and relatively small. The outbreaks in Vietnam and China are limited to families who are involved with poultry. Nevertheless, there is a danger of that happening, but there is also the more dangerous possibility of the virus translating into a different virus, either in pigs or in humans, for which it is difficult to predict how to develop a vaccine. Work is in progress on a vaccine, but the first line of defence for any human outbreak would be antiviral drugs.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that some supermarket chains are importing large numbers of chickens from Brazil and selling them under names that sound like British farmhouse products? Is it not about time that the country of origin had to be shown, certainly in the case of potentially dangerous foods, so that consumers are aware of where the products are coming from?
My Lords, I should point out that there is no known health danger either to animals or humans from imports of poultry from Brazil.
Labelling arrangements for imported goods into the EU are covered by EU rules, and it is the British Government's view, which we are pursuing with some support in the rest of Europe, that the labelling requirements should be tightened up. That will be addressed at European level in the next few months.
My Lords, I could never reassure the House or my noble friend that the risk is nil. However, the combination of the bans on imports of poultry and poultry products and our contingency plans for poultry disease and for health disease give us maximum assurance that there is a low risk that the disease will get into the country, and a very low risk that it would spread if by chance it did get in. I hope that is sufficient reassurance, even if it is not absolute.