The avian influenza virus (AI) is a direct threat to poultry producers, supply chain and the UK’s ability to provide products to the retail market.
On the 2nd November 2022, the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) in partnership with Norfolk County Council and Suffolk County Council hosted a special meeting of the Norfolk and Suffolk Poultry Group to discuss the impact that AI is having on our businesses and how we might best support them. The meeting was attended by representatives from across the supply chain who painted a very bleak picture of the impact of the virus on the sector.
You may be aware that there have been 88 cases of AI across Great Britain since 1st October, a meteoric increase from the single case reported against the same time frame last year. Norfolk & Suffolk is at the epicentre for the virus. The severity is magnified by the fact that our two counties account for somewhere between 18% and 20% of the UK’s poultry production of chickens, turkeys, and ducks. Latest data also showed that the poultry sector in East Anglia is valued at £557m, employing 14,000 people with 41% of domestic turkey production coming from East Anglia. Poultry production and processing is one of the most important components within this sector and with significant potential for future growth. It is estimated that 55 million birds have so far been culled worldwide during the outbreak.
Our farmers are doing all they can to mitigate the impact and increase their bio-security measures. However, AI is not going away. This is resulting in the closure of farms for up to 5 months, and in some cases 12 months. Unless swift and impactful measures are taken, we could see the permanent closure of these businesses and supply chain. This will be a significant hit to the industry and the UK’s ability to supply the consumer, especially in the run-up to the Christmas period. Our export capability is also heavily affected.
AI, of course, is not limited to commercial birds and is spread through a complex environment that includes wild birds and gamebirds, even impacting owners of single birds.
The Norfolk & Suffolk Poultry Group has four key thematic asks of Government:
Dialogue needs to be clearer with businesses. They are not hearing what compensation they are likely to get, or when it will arrive, which is essential for cashflow and forecasting.
The 48-hour rule is a welcome move, but it is not fit for purpose. This is 48 hours from the date of confirmation, which can be up to five days from the day it was reported. Some farms are seeing their birds die within three days.
Many farmers will be out of commission for up to 4-5 months, with no income during that period. This must be addressed, otherwise this will be simply too risky for farmers to continue operating in the poultry sector.
This has been a real problem. We heard directly that businesses are having to licence everything into the factory, and this requires five days written notice. They are also not getting licences to get birds off high-risk farms. Businesses need flexibility and quick support to get seasonal turkeys moved.
Unregulated period of infection:
Currently, if a farm becomes infected with AI, then a producer that has been supplied by the farm a week prior will have to dispose of their produce wherever it is in the supply chain. There is no compensation for this.
We must act urgently to understand more about the vaccination given the significant increase in cases. Vaccination trials are taking place across Europe, and we must not be behind the curve on this.
This is exacerbating a mental health and wellbeing crisis in the agri-food sector, so we would encourage Government to work more closely with the agri-food and VCSE sectors to ensure more support is received on this front. Furthermore, we must develop a strategy that will prevent and mitigate future outbreaks, thereby securing the future of this economically important sector.
We hope that you will be able to join the next meeting of this Poultry Group so demonstrating your support, alongside ours for this nationally significant sector in Norfolk and Suffolk.
C-J Green, Chair of New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership
Chris Starkie, Chief Executive, New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership