Shoppers could face shortages of British goose this Christmas after the UK’s biggest producer is understood to have been hit by multiple bird flu outbreaks.
The UK has suffered what officials have said is the “largest ever outbreak of avian flu” over the past year, with more than 140 reported outbreaks in England alone.
The situation is particularly acute in Norfolk and Suffolk after 14 outbreaks in the past month alone.
Suffolk-based Gressingham Foods, which raises ducks, geese and seasonal turkeys, has been hit particularly hard, according to industry insiders, after five outbreaks on its sites across the two counties in the past week. Thousands of birds are understood to have been culled.
As the main supplier to UK supermarkets, there are fears the availability of British goose this Christmas will be severely affected, with about 250,000 geese eaten over the festive period. Goose is normally made available to buy by retailers from late October.
Although there are farmgate options for the public to seek out goose for Christmas, retailers are likely to have to look at imports, said Richard Griffiths, the chief executive of the British Poultry Council (BPC).
There are other UK-based duck producers, but Gressingham Foods is the UK’s only year-round supplier of duck meat.
Gressingham Foods did not respond to requests for comment, but UK supermarkets downplayed any concerns about duck or goose meat availability.
“Retailers are well versed at managing supply chains under challenging conditions. They are monitoring the continuing spread of avian flu and have asked the government to take all appropriate steps to reduce its spread to ensure continued supply for customers,” said Andrew Opie, the direcot of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium.
Avian flu is probably carried by migrating birds, spreading through direct contact or through contaminated body fluids and faeces. It can also be spread by contaminated feed and water or by dirty vehicles, clothing and footwear.
In the event of a confirmed outbreak, any surviving birds in a flock are culled, with farmers compensated for the healthy birds.
Across Europe as a whole, 47.7 million birds have been culled since last autumn and many more thousands of wild birds have died. More than 100,000 ducks were reportedly culled at farms owned by Gressingham Foods earlier this year during previous outbreaks of bird flu.
The situation is likely to worsen as autumn migration begins and the number of wild birds wintering in Europe increases the risk of outbreaks.
In previous years cases dropped in the summer, but this year outbreaks continued with experts suspecting highly pathogenic variants of avian flu are now endemic in wild birds, creating a risk of infection all year.
The British Poultry Council has called for a UK-wide compulsory housing order for all farmed birds “as soon as possible to prioritize the wellbeing of our farmers, the viability of their businesses and the safety of all birds”.
Veterinary trials to test bird flu vaccines have started in France and the Netherlands, but there are question marks around the effectiveness of vaccinations against avian flu and whether vaccinated birds can still spread the disease if infected.