Government support is needed to help the poultry industry cope with the cost of cleaning up after an outbreak of avian influenza.
Addressing the Egg and Poultry Industry Conference in Wales on Monday (2 November), its president, Andrew Joret, said there was huge variability in the cost of secondary cleansing and disinfection (C&D), which fell on the individual farm business.
Completing secondary C&D swiftly was a priority, as this started a 90-day clock ticking for the UK to regain AI-free status and to start trading again without restriction, he explained.
An industry group was looking at either establishing a levy, to raise funds to help with the clean-up, or setting up an insurance model.
The most likely outcome, Mr Joret suggested, would be a combination of the two – “a fund at one level, and a certain amount of reinsurance at a second level”.
Government could help in two ways.
The first was to help enforce the levy, “to make it a little more compulsory, so we avoid the free-loader element”.
“Secondly, if we have a hybrid system, ultimately we would need some sort of cap on the cost of that reinsurance, and there may be a position here for government to be an insurer of last resort in the event of a catastrophe.”
Mr Joret suggested such involvement might be in the government’s interest. The three outbreaks in the UK in the past 12 months had cost the poultry sector £50m in lost profits, he said. With corporation tax at 20%, that amounted to £10m in lost revenue to the Treasury.
In response, Defra farming minister George Eustice said these were certainly areas he would look at, though he noted that the poultry sector had a history of being resistant to AHDB-style industry levies.
“But there is primary legislation that enables us to bring forward animal health levies in certain circumstances if we want to. I’m happy to look at that, but it’s a complex area and we need to get the design of it right.”
Mr Eustice also suggested that the requirement to complete secondary C&D before regaining AI-free country status could be renegotiated.
There was an inconsistency between the international rules for AI and for some other diseases, where a country only had to have had no further cases for a certain amount of time before export bans could be lifted.
Chief vet Nigel Gibbens told the conference that Defra was working with other EU partners to seek a change in the international rules, but this process could take years.
Meanwhile, Mr Joret also raised concerns about whether the UK had sufficient capacity to deal with slaughtering millions of birds in the event of a widespread AI outbreak.
In the US this year, it had taken three weeks to cull all birds on some farms, sometimes using dustbins and carbon dioxide, and this had led to virus spread.
But Mr Eustice insisted that, despite imminent cuts in funding to Defra, protecting against animal disease would remain one of his department’s top priorities.
Defra was looking at drawing up a list of suppliers who could supply mobile gassing units at short notice, as well as allowing whole-house gassing, he said.