The EU's first outbreak of Pthe lethal H5N1 strain of bird flu in commercial poultry was confirmed yesterday in France, the EU's largest poultry producer.
But President Jacques Chirac, trying to keep the lucrative market alive, sought to ease fears by insisting that eating poultry is safe and panic is unjustified.
The Agriculture Ministry said lab tests confirmed H5N1 in turkeys at a farm of more than 11,000 birds in the southeast Ain region.
Hundreds of birds died and the remainder were slaughtered even before the presence of the lethal virus was confirmed. The farm has been sealed off.
However, Chirac said there is "no danger in eating poultry and eggs" and that panic among consumers is "totally unjustified."
"In any case, the virus in question ... is automatically destroyed by cooking. So there is strictly no danger," the French president said as he inaugurated the annual agriculture fair in Paris -- where poultry has been banned as a precaution.
Panic appears to have developed among consumers. There has been a drop of up to 30 percent in poultry purchases even before the announcement.
In an indication of the global impact of the French case, Japan temporarily suspended imports of French poultry, including the delicacy foie gras, meat and other internal organs, according to the Japanese Embassy in Paris. Last year, Japan imported 1,510 tonnes of duck and other poultry meat and 377 tonnes of internal organs, including foie gras, from France.
Panic has economic and social consequences for France, Chirac noted, and is "totally unjustified." He spoke after meeting with veterinarians and representatives of poultry farmers at the fair.
The spread of bird flu to commercial stocks in France, which has been working for months to prevent and prepare for an outbreak, served as a sobering sign for other developed countries that consider themselves well protected.
France has some 200,000 farms that raise 900 million birds each year. In 2004, the latest year for which figures were available, the French poultry sector generated more than 3 billion euros (US$3.6 billion) in revenues -- more than 20 percent of total EU production.
Scientists fear the H5N1 strain, which has spread from Asia to at least 10 European countries and Africa, could mutate into a form that is easily transmitted between humans, sparking a pandemic.
No human cases of bird flu have been reported in the 25-member EU. The disease has killed at least 92 people elsewhere, mostly in southeast Asia.