Shoppers could face shortages of British geese this Christmas after the UK’s biggest producer is understood to have been hit by multiple outbreaks of bird flu.
The UK has suffered what officials have said is the “biggest ever outbreak of avian flu” over the past year, with more than 140 reported outbreaks in England alone.
The situation is particularly acute in Norfolk and Suffolk after 14 outbreaks in the past month alone.
Suffolk-based Gressingham Foods, which raises ducks, geese and seasonal turkeys, has been hit particularly hard, according to industry insiders, after five outbreaks at its sites in the two counties in the past week. Thousands of birds are thought to have been killed.
As the main supplier to British supermarkets, there are fears the availability of British geese this Christmas will be badly affected, with around 250,000 geese eaten over the festive period. Goose is usually put on sale by retailers from the end of October.
While there are farm options for the public to source geese for Christmas, retailers will likely have to look to imports, said Richard Griffiths, the chief executive of the British Poultry Council (BPC).
There are other UK-based duck producers, but Gressingham Foods is the only year-round supplier of duck meat in the UK.
Gressingham Foods did not respond to requests for comment, but UK supermarkets downplayed any concerns about duck or goose meat availability.
“Retailers are well versed in managing supply chains under challenging conditions. They are monitoring the ongoing spread of avian flu and have asked the government to take all appropriate steps to reduce its spread to ensure continued supply for customers,” said Andrew Opie, the director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium.
Avian influenza is likely carried by migrating birds, spread by direct contact or through contaminated body fluids and feces. It can also be spread through contaminated feed and water or through dirty cars, clothes and shoes.
In the event of a confirmed outbreak, all surviving birds in a flock are culled, with farmers compensated for the healthy birds.
In the whole of Europe, 47.7 million birds have been slaughtered since last autumn and many more thousands of wild birds have died. More than 100,000 ducks are believed to have been culled at farms owned by Gressingham Foods during previous outbreaks of bird flu earlier this year.
The situation is likely to worsen as autumn migration begins and the number of wild birds wintering in Europe increases the risk of outbreaks.
In previous years, cases fell in the summer, but this year outbreaks continued with experts suspecting that highly pathogenic strains of avian flu are now endemic in wild birds, creating a risk of infection every year.
The British Poultry Council has called for a UK-wide mandatory housing for all farmed birds “as soon as possible to prioritize the welfare of our farmers, the viability of their businesses and the safety of all birds”.
Veterinary trials to test vaccinations for bird flu have started in France and the Netherlands, but there are question marks about the effectiveness of vaccinations against avian flu and whether vaccinated birds can still spread the disease if they are infected.