Thousands of birds slaughtered and export ban extended as France is put on high alert following outbreak in south-west
French foie gras producers have been forced to slaughter thousands of birds being prepared for the lucrative Christmas market to prevent the spread of a virulent strain of bird flu.
The agriculture ministry raised the risk level of the virus spreading from moderate to high on Tuesday across the country, at a crucial time for the industry.
The increased alert came after an outbreak of a particularly severe form of bird flu, the H5N8 virus, was reported at a duck farm in the south-west of the country, prompting fears it could spread throughout the region.
This virus has never been detected in humans, unlike other strains, but millions of farm birds were slaughtered in Asia in 2014 before it arrived in Europe.
French officials and farmers insist the virus poses no danger to humans and the birds remain fit for consumption.
The latest outbreaks come as French foie gras producers approach the busiest time of year ; foie gras, made from the engorged livers of force-fed ducks and geese, is a traditional staple of le reveillon, the Christmas Eve meal, and accounts for about one-third of annual sales.
While considered a delicacy in France, the process of pumping grain directly into each birds stomach via a metal tube pushed down the throat, forcing the liver to bloat, is considered cruel by animal campaigners.
In 2015, an outbreak of bird flu that hit producers in the same region led to a drop of 25% in production and losses of an estimated 500m (422m) for the industry.
French producers had hoped to recover their bird-flu free status on 3 December, but the new outbreak means the country will not be cleared for at least 90 days. While most French-produced foie gras is consumed in France, the resurgence of the virus means it cannot be exported outside the European Union. In 2015 France exported almost 5,000 tonnes out of 19,200 tonnes produced to Japan.
Marie-Pierre P, from the foie gras producers group Cifog, warned prices could be 10% higher this Christmas.
The new, more aggressive H5N8 avian flu virus was first detected at the end of November in northern France. It is thought to have been spread from neighbouring European countries by wild ducks.
So far, about 7,000 contaminated ducks are reported to have been killed and another 4,500 have died suddenly from the virus in the Tarn. Thousands more have been killed or died in neighbouring areas and farms have been quarantined.
In January the French government announced 130m extra subsidies for foie gras producers.