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Bernard Matthews farm cleared after bird flu outbreak - extended

Bernard Matthews Holdings Ltd., Europe's largest poultry producer, said the UK turkey farm where bird flu was found earlier this month will be „fully operational” today after clearance from authorities.

The State Veterinary Service inspected the facility in Suffolk, England, and the Meat Hygiene Service has re-licensed it, Environment Secretary David Miliband said in a statement posted on the Web site of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The lethal H5N1 strain of avian influenza this month was found at the Bernard Matthews' turkey farm in Holton, about 80 miles northeast of London, after 2,500 turkeys died. Veterinarians gassed more than 150,000 birds at the farm, which was later cleaned and inspected. The reopening of the farm is „currently under the control of Defra,” Bernard Matthews spokeswoman Jade Atkinson said today in an e-mail. The company can reopen a slaughterhouse near the farm, the government said in its statement. While some infected meat may have entered the food chain, UK authorities said the risk to the public health remains low. Properly cooking poultry kills the H5N1 virus, according to the WHO. At least 272 people are known to have been infected with H5N1 since 2003, and 166 of them have died, the Geneva-based WHO said February 6.

A government investigation into the cause of the outbreak is pending, and Miliband said he expects more information by the end of the week. UK officials are cooperating with their counterparts in Hungary, where an H5N1 outbreak was reported on a goose farm last month, to see if the virus found on the Suffolk farm came from the eastern European nation, the government said. Hungary's Chief Veterinarian Miklós Süth said there was no provable link between recent bird flu outbreaks in Szentes, Hungary and in Holton, England, and said press reports and his command of English were responsible for the mistake. „The chance of that is very, very slim,” Miklós Süth said today at a press conference in Budapest. „The chance of this virus being carried by, say, a wild bird from Scotland is much, much higher.” The virus infected turkey in England, while the infected fowl in Hungary were geese, he said. „We don't use the same facilities to slaughter geese and turkeys. The technology is totally different,” Süth said.

UK officials had said the bird flu found in Suffolk was similar to the Hungarian virus. Virtually all the H5N1 samples analyzed at the European Union's laboratory in Weybridge, England, are genetically identical, Süth said. Almost all of Bernard Matthews's poultry farms are in western Hungary, hundreds of kilometers away from the southeast Hungarian farms where the virus was found. No live animals were transported between Bernard Matthews's operations in the two countries. Between November and February, Matthews's Hungarian units sent about 365,000 tons of poultry products to Britain, while his British farms sent nearly 623,000 tons of poultry to Hungary, he said. Bernard Matthews is still voluntarily suspending the movement of poultry products between its UK and Hungarian outlets pending the UK investigation, Atkinson said. (Bloomberg)