Flu Fears Are Sidelining French Poultry

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By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 2, 2006

PARIS, March 1 -- In the center of a bustling hall at Paris's famous International Agricultural Show, the representatives of the Poultry Producers Union of Auvergne are lonely guys.

The French government banned their prize chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys from this year's fair because of fears about avian flu. So the farmers from central France's Auvergne region are trying to pull in crowds with a computerized poultry contest starring a green cartoon rooster that declares the winning answers to such zingers as "What do you call a baby turkey?" Answer: "A poult." In French, that would be dindonneau .

"Instead of real chickens, we've got a virtual chicken game," said Robert Conil, director of the Auvergne union, which represents 320 poultry producers. "Every time the media shows a picture of a dead bird, our sales go down."

One morning this week, he glanced wistfully at the television cameras and the cheering crowd packing the next booth, where men in floor-sweeping capes and three-cornered hats were awarding medals to master cheese producers.

But at Conil's chicken stall, one of his colleagues sat with a middle-age couple at a bistro table drinking bottled water and occasionally glancing at a film about poultry production in Auvergne. A few packaged chicken parts in a nearby refrigerated case lured even fewer spectators.

Within the past week, the H5N1 strain of avian flu has been confirmed in two wild ducks and 16 wild swans and in turkeys on a farm in eastern France -- the first domestic cases found in a country belonging to the European Union. Poultry sales in France have plummeted by an estimated 30 percent, millions of free-range birds have been forced into barns to prevent contact with wild birds, and President Jacques Chirac -- leader of the world's fourth-largest poultry-producing nation -- has gone on a public chicken-eating campaign and appealed to the French not to panic.

Avian flu has been detected in dead birds in about 20 European and Middle Eastern countries in recent weeks. On Tuesday, German officials reported that a dead cat had tested positive for the flu strain. The cat lived on the Baltic Sea island of Ruegen, where Germany's first cases of avian flu were detected in birds. Tigers and other large cats have contracted the illness in Asia, where the avian flu has been much more widespread.

The crisis in France's $10 billion-a-year poultry industry erupted just days before the opening last weekend of the country's premier agricultural showcase -- an annual celebration of France's native food products and the stage for coveted awards that can boost a farmer's or vintner's prices and prestige.

Among the poultry people -- who for the first time in the festival's 42-year-history have no fowl on display -- the talk is not of lost awards. In a nation where the average person eats 51 pounds of poultry a year, almost twice the world average, the threat of avian flu shutting down their industry has terrified farmers and alarmed government officials.

"The survival of the whole network is at stake," said Manu Palomares, 45, a member of the Poultry Association of Bresse, a district that abuts the eastern region of France where the infection was found in ducks, swans and turkeys. He has been ordered to put his 40,000 free-range chickens indoors. "We're all worried for our birds," he said.

With no poultry to show, Palomares is peddling a side product -- microwave popcorn.

But his mind is on the chickens. If the government keeps his poultry indoors for more than 80 days, neither the fowl nor their eggs can be sold as free-range, the choice of buyers who are willing to pay more for the good health and hygiene of both the birds and the consumer. And, if the French government -- which began a bird vaccination program this week -- requires that Palomares's chickens be injected at a cost of one euro, or about $1.20, per bird, he would lose his wholesale profit, he said.

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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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