In recent weeks we have had a food scare without the beef industry being involved and somehow it doesn’t feel the same.
Bird flu arrived in the UK and there were immediate fears on the implications for the wider poultry industry. Thankfully so far the worst fears don’t seem to have come to pass but it is probably still too early to be counting chickens...
Dealing with this incident brings a couple of things in particular into focus. Firstly is the general consumer acceptance that there will be issues with food from time to time and whatever surveys say, customer loyalty in still high volumes is the best measure of consumer confidence. Perhaps with all the sources of information on food consumers now make more balanced judgements on risks than was the case with BSE in the mid 1990s. There is also the fact that with 24 hour rolling news it is almost impossible to be sensational anymore, certainly on something that while a horrendous problem for the farming community, has little connection with consumers far removed from farming.
The other striking example is just how bio secure the poultry industry has become. Back in the good old day’s chickens and at this time of year turkeys roamed farm yards and fields close by before being housed in the evening. The biggest security risk was seen as the uninvited visit by a local fox to help himself to his Christmas dinner! The modern poultry unit is of course something completely different and usually a completely enclosed environment.
Given how disease spreads we can imagine the implications if it entered flocks containing thousands of birds and while a poultry unit may not present the picture postcard image of chicken or egg production that a housewife scattering grain to hens in a yard did, it certainly brings disease risk and control to a different level. A classic example of how the good old days may have been sufficient in a business that had just a handful of birds but the industrial scale production of the present day demands a totally different and ruthlessly professional approach to management.
Reflecting on poultry industry controls from a beef and sheep perspective suggests that our industry is some way off. Failure to eradicate TB after several decades of trying highlights that for grazing animals it simply isn’t practical to have a completely closed environment. Times of crisis like Foot and Mouth did see a heightened level of bio security with disinfectant being dispersed liberally. However once the crisis passes we tend to think of cattle and sheep as relatively low risk. While they are relative to poultry or indeed pigs, we would do well to reflect on what we could do from a practical viewpoint to minimise risk. Things like visitors wandering around cattle houses may look harmless but no poultry farmer would let anyone into a broiler house. Prevention always trumps cure.
(Views expressed in this article are those of the writer only and do not represent any organisation or association.)