Half of Britain's free-range Christmas turkeys lost to bird flu crisis

Photo: Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

A poultry expert says about half of the country's free-range turkeys and geese have either died or been culled because of the country's largest-ever outbreak of avian flu.

During the festive season, British farmers produce 1.2 to 1.3 million free-range birds, according to Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the British Poultry Council.

“We have seen around 600,000 of those free-range birds being directly affected,” he said. According to Griffiths, turkey production in the UK for Christmas is usually between 8.5 and 9 million birds. Approximately one million of them have died or been culled.

It was unclear what the impact would be on prices.

“That is really a question for retailers at this point. We do not know how the gaps within retail are going to be filled,” he said.

In terms of turkey availability at Christmas, the major supermarket groups have been relatively relaxed so far.

The market leader Tesco said in October that it expected to be able to satisfy demand, while Sainsbury's said earlier this month that it had ordered more turkeys this year than last year, allowing it to buffer against supply disruptions.

Likewise, Marks & Spencer said it had strong plans to protect the supply of fresh turkeys sold at Christmas.

A poultry farmer told the committee, however, there will be a shortage of free range British turkeys this year, adding, “the biggest impact has been on supermarkets.”

The UK has seen nearly 140 cases of bird flu since the beginning of October, with 1.6 million birds culled.

In the UK, approximately 36 percent of poultry farms have avian flu controls in place, which requires birds to be housed indoors. Food production will be greatly affected, and the impact on industry will be enormous.