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French poultry sales plummet after bird flu at turkey farm

The announcement on Saturday that the deadly strain of bird flu was discovered in domesticated turkeys in France has disrupted the country's $7-billion poultry market and raised fears among the French that they could be vulnerable to the disease.

President Jacques Chirac, a former agriculture minister, met with farmers and veterinarians on Saturday morning at the opening of France's annual international agricultural fair and urged calm.

There is no "absolutely no danger in eating poultry and eggs," Chirac said, eating a chicken dish to press the point. He admitted that the industry has been "profoundly hurt and disrupted," but said "a completely unjustified sort of total panic" was developing.

For the first time in the fair's 42-year history, no live poultry are on display.

Detection of the H5N1 strain of the avian flu virus on a turkey farm in eastern France, confirmed by the Agriculture Ministry early Saturday, represented the first time the virus had been found in farm animals in the 25 countries of the European Union.

France had already been reeling from the news that the carcass of wild duck found nearly two weeks ago in Ain, the same area where the turkey farm is located, had been infected.

Those fears, followed by Saturday's confirmation that a farm with a flock of 11,000 turkeys had been struck by the disease, have sent poultry sales plummeting.

Although the official estimate of market loss is 30 percent, some officials at the Rungis wholesale market in Paris reported a drop near 50 percent in two days.

The detection of the virus threatens not only to transform the eating habits of the country, but to damage the export market for poultry products of France, the largest producer in Europe.

Japan on Friday announced that it had temporarily banned the import of all poultry products from France - even foie gras packaged before the virus struck. Japan is the fourth-largest importer of foie gras, made from the livers of force-fed geese.

The French government has taken aggressive preventive measures throughout the poultry industry, ordering birds confined to pens and quarantining the area where the original infected duck, and later a second infected duck, were found.

But the turkey farm is within that protection zone, the French agriculture minister, Dominique Bussereau, said Friday.

There is a plan to vaccinate many of the country's birds. The vaccine can prevent the flu in most cases, but it can also mask the symptoms of some infected birds, turning them into silent carriers. Some countries ban the import of birds from countries that use the vaccine for that reason.

Bird flu has hit six other European Union countries: Austria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, and Slovenia. On Friday, the union's health ministers met in Vienna, Austria, where they ate poultry products and discussed strategies.

Markos Kyprianou, the union's health commissioner, said at the meeting that bird flu "will be a problem for some time to come," adding that member countries will have to "learn how to live with it."

The disease is highly contagious among poultry and can spread quickly through an entire flock. It can be contracted by people who come into contact with infected birds during slaughtering, plucking feathers, butchering or preparation for cooking, but it is not transmitted through eating thoroughly cooked poultry.

Chirac underscored that point on Friday, when he served Poland's president, Lech Kaczynski, a lunch of supreme de volaille, a creamed chicken dish, at Elysee Palace.

The infection could devastate France's upscale free-range poultry industry.

The area of Bresse, for example, which is close to the area of the turkey farm, is the only region of France whose poultry receives the coveted designation "AOC" or Appelation d'Origine Controlee. A Bresse capon at the upscale food emporium in Paris' Bon Marche department store, for example, sells for $33 a pound.

ALSO SATURDAY . . .

+ A 27-year-old woman dies from bird flu in Jakarta, Indonesia, becoming that nation's 20th human fatality from the virus.

+ China reports two new cases of H5N1 in a 9-year-old girl and a 26-year-old woman, raising its number of reported human infections since October to 14.

+ Authorities in the former Soviet republic of Georgia order the killing of domestic birds in an area where they fear wild swans died of H5N1.

+ Two wild birds test positive for H5N1 in the eastern German state of Brandenburg, the first cases in that part of Germany.

+ Five dead chickens at two farms in India's Gujarat state were infected, the government says, confirming the country's second known outbreak.

- ASSOCIATED PRESS

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