Avian flu: Outbreak of highly pathogenic variety in Europe - summary of precautions to be taken

16 outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) have been reported in poultry farms, affecting a variety of poultry species (ducks, geese, turkeys, hens) in four affected EU Member States (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania).

On 16 January 2020, a European Commission proposal consolidating the protective measures in relation to outbreaks of the HPAI of subtype H5N8 was passed. The virus, likely introduced by wild migratory birds which can carry it during their seasonal movements, and shows no indication of harm to human health at present, was first reported in Poland on 31 December 2019. The measures aim at protecting the rest of the EU and third countries ensuring continuation of safe trade without jeopardising the sanitary status of the EU. Such Decisions are usually recognised by third countries, which import from non-affected parts of the respective Member State and the rest of the EU. So far all affected countries have taken all necessary measures.  

There is a detailed guidance for the UK provided via the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (defra) and the Animal an Plant Health Agency available here.


Avian Influenza (AI) or "Bird Flu" is a highly contagious viral infection which can affect all species of birds and can manifest itself in different ways depending mainly on the ability of the virus to cause disease (pathogenicity) and on the species affected. 

Avian influenza viruses can be transmitted directly from wild birds to domestic poultry or indirectly e.g. through contaminated material. The virus spreads directly from bird to bird via airborne transmission or indirectly, through faecal contamination of footwear or feed. The so called "wet" markets or live bird markets, found especially in Asia, where live birds are sold can be another source of spread and mixing of different viruses between avian species. Large amounts of virus are secreted in bird droppings, contaminating soil and water supply. Contaminated equipment, vehicles, feed, cages or clothing - especially shoes - can spread the virus in between farms. The virus can also be mechanically carried forward by other animals, such as rodents.

An established avian surveillance system has been designed to be able to identify an outbreak of avian influenza of the highly pathogenic variety. This initiates measures to control the outbreak and avoid further spread. The affected birds/poultry should then be culled and safely destroyed. Restriction and surveillance zones around the affected holding will then be immediately implemented, to reduce the risk of further spread, and investigations into the source of the outbreak initiated.

Risk Assessment & Precautionary Practices

In winter, there is an increased risk of avian flu in the UK from migrating wild birds (which might infect domestic poultry).

If you keep poultry (including game birds or as pets), biosecurity best practice advice should be followed.  This is especially relevant if the birds are in a Higher Risk Area (HRA).  Check if your premises is within an HRA on the interactive map

To ensure good biosecurity, all poultry keepers should:

  • minimise movement in and out of bird enclosures
  • clean footwear before and after visiting birds, using a Defra approved disinfectant at entrances and exits
  • clean and disinfect vehicles and equipment that have come into contact with poultry
  • keep areas where birds live clean and tidy, and regularly disinfect hard surfaces such as paths and walkways
  • humanely control rats and mice
  • place birds’ food and water in fully enclosed areas protected from wild birds, and remove any spilled feed regularly
  • avoid keeping ducks and geese with other poultry species, where possible
  • keep birds separate from wildlife and wild waterfowl by putting suitable fencing around outdoor areas they access
  • keep a close watch on birds for any signs of disease and report any very sick birds or unexplained deaths to your vet

Register your birds - If you have more than 50 birds, you are legally required to register your flock within one month of their arrival at your premises.

Report signs of disease - if you suspect any type of avian influenza you must report it immediately by calling the Defra Rural services helpline on 03000 200 301. Failure to do so is an offence.

Extensive advice is provided via the Defra information available here .

The Oie World Organisation for Animal Health also provides an Avian Influenza Portal providing information on prevention and control. It provides links to technical information on a range of issues, including recommended control measures, diagnostic methods and vaccines, methods of humane killing and carcass disposal, and the safety of poultry products moving in international trade. Also, links to additional technical information, including the global control strategy, issues related to food safety and a statement on avian influenza and the role of wild birds.

Precautionary Measures

A crisis of any kind be it via a virus, a contamination or pollution, bacteria, chemical or even radiation may have domestic, European or global repercussions for production, customers and supply chains.

Precautionary and planning measures that should be considered for any crisis are as follows:

  • A full Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan should incorporate all major risks and seek to protect against them at vulnerable points within the supply, processing and distribution chain. This should be kept regularly updated to ensure that specific risks are reviewed and protections, as far as possible, included.
  • A company should have a detailed and up to date crisis management plan, listing key decision makers, experts and responsibilities. This should be regularly reviewed/tested and any recommendations implemented
  • The crisis management plan should be linked to a business continuity plan. Are there alternative supply locations for key ingredients? Alternative production facilities?
  • Check insurance policies and terms
  • Check contractual terms of supply and distribution agreements
  • Health and safety legislation obliges employers to provide a safe as reasonably practicable environment for staff and visitors; suitable risk assessments for employees and other persons affected by the work activities should be carried out and all reasonable precautionary measures implemented
  • Keep abreast of new developments – legal, scientific and medical that may affect your product / assist you in protecting against risks and so protecting your customers, consumers and employees and ultimately your business/brand

Labelling/Welfare Claims/Free range

In a past outbreak of January 2017, after 12 weeks of restrictions due to avian influenza, free-range egg cartons were labelled with stickers stating the contents were "laid by hens temporarily housed in barns for their welfare". This was to provide a level playing field to all within the sector if they were in a high or lower risk area. It would be possible to retain requirements for free range with netting and allow outside areas; however where larger scale operations were concerned, this became unfeasible. Consumers were generally reported as supportive due to the transparency provided by food providers.


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