By Nigel Morris, Home Affairs Correspondent
Published: 12 February 2007
Lorry-loads of poultry products could have been transported out of the British farm which suffered a major outbreak of bird flu, the Government has admitted.
An exclusion zone was put in place around the Bernard Matthews plant in Holton when the deadly strain of H5N1 was identified last week. But a diplomatic row was brewing last night between London and Budapest after Hungary said that tons of meat had been sent from Holton to the central European country since the restrictions were imposed.
Lajos Bognar, Hungary’s chief vet, told Channel 4 News: “I can say that from the protection zone, from the UK, six trucks arrived from there last week to Hungary.”
His claim brought a bizarre new twist to the avian flu saga as experts believe that the Suffolk cases can be traced directly back to an outbreak of an identical strain of the H5N1 virus in Hungary. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) conceded such shipments out of Holton could have taken place since the avian flu outbreak.
A spokesman said: “Depending on the type of product, date of slaughter and which farm it originated on, it is possible that poultry product from the Suffolk plant could have met the licensing requirements for movement outside the restricted area.”
Channel 4 claimed that the decision to grant the licence would have been made before it was clear that poultry, rather than wild birds, was the likely source of the infection.
The Government was also forced to defend a decision to continue allowing imports of turkey meat from Hungary after the H5N1 virus was discovered there. Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, called for a Commons statement on Defra’s effort to protect the public from “what would be a devastating mutation into a virus contagious between humans”.
But Defra insisted that it had been legal to import the meat as it originated from outside the “restriction zone” around the Hungarian infection. David Miliband, the Environment Secretary, said that blocking imports from a wider area would have been a breach of EU rules and could have invited a devastating continent-wide retaliation against the UK poultry industry.
Meanwhile, the Government hinted that Bernard Matthews could be prosecuted over the bird flu outbreak as fears grew that infected turkey could have entered the human food chain. Ministers said it was now clear there had been a “biosecurity lapse” at the Suffolk plant.
Investigators are focusing on the import of turkey meat by the company from a slaughterhouse 30 miles from the source of the Hungarian outbreak of avian flu. One possibility is that the meat became cross-contaminated in the slaughterhouse with the virus and brought small doses of it into the UK. It could then have been transferred at Holton into sheds housing live birds.