MP for Penrith and the Border and the only vet in the House of Commons, Dr Neil Hudson, is actively pushing for more support for poultry producers as the UK is ravaged by its worst ever Avian Influenza outbreak in history.
The Cumbrian MP first quizzed poultry bosses and animal disease experts as part of an urgent Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee Inquiry, before lending his expertise to a parliamentary debate on the outbreak which is wreaking havoc on bird populations and drastically impacting the farming sector.
Avian Influenza is a highly contagious disease affecting both poultry and wild birds.
The Chief Executive of British Poultry Council, Richard Griffiths, told the EFRA Committee that of the usual 1.2 or 1.3 million free-range birds grown for Christmas, around half (c.600,000) of these animals have been directly culled. And over a million total Christmas birds have died or been culled this year. This figure is just one part of the wider picture where more than 1.6 billion birds have been culled on farms across the UK.
This topic is a personal one for Dr Hudson who was on the front line of the 2001 Foot and Mouth Crisis working as a Veterinary Inspector, so understands all too well the economic, cultural and human health implications of an animal disease outbreak.
The EFRA panel heard from experts on a range of Avian influenza issues including potential consumer price increases for poultry and eggs, small and medium businesses facing closure, the implementation of housing requirements to protect captive bird populations and how birds are classified as free-range or barn birds.
Dr Hudson then made a wide-ranging speech covering a vast range of issues such as the human impact of the outbreak, and particularly the effects it is having on the mental health of people working on the front line of disease control and the support networks available in the predominantly rural communities. He also pushed for an international approach to the problem as diseases do not respect borders, for farmers to receive compensation earlier in the cull process and to explore a more sophisticated insurance scheme.
Dr Neil Hudson, MP for Penrith and The Border, said:
“This year, we are facing the worst Avian Influenza outbreak which is already having a huge impact on agri-food businesses, rural communities, and consumers. Bird populations, wild and domestic, across the UK and Europe have been devastated.
“As I said in the EFRA session and my parliamentary speech, my thoughts and prayers are with farmers, producers, vets, officials, and everyone else on the front line of this harrowing outbreak. One of my big pushes in Parliament has been to better support those working in rural industries with their mental health and hearing first-hand from poultry producers whose lives and livelihoods have been upended has brought home the importance of this in such an emotional way.
“Our urgent EFRA Inquiry is so important as by looking at the causes of the crisis and how it has been handled so far then we can make evidence-based recommendations to Government. I am urging the Government to provide more support to poultry farmers and to really get behind securing and boosting the long term resilience of the Animal and Plant Health Agency. At the moment with this outbreak, we are coping valiantly but we are fighting a war with a peacetime army, and that needs to be addressed moving forward.”
With this outbreak stretching the UK’s animal disease infrastructure, Dr Hudson also raised serious concerns about the country’s scientific capabilities to detect and control new outbreaks of infectious diseases.
This comes after Dr Hudson was invited to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in Summer due to his significant animal welfare and disease prevention experience where he heard from expert witnesses that the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) – the body in charge of the UK’s
A report by the PAC released this month pointed to over 1,000 single points of failure at the organisation’s main site at Weybridge leaving it “continually vulnerable to a major breakdown”. Renovation is now in the pipeline, but a £1.6 billion funding shortfall remains. Dr Hudson has urged Government to address urgently or face the consequences.
He again probed the issue with the UK’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Christine Middlemiss, and APHA Chief Executive, David Holdsworth who told the EFRA panel in no uncertain terms that investment is critical, particularly considering the potentially massive impacts of other animal disease outbreaks such as African Swine Fever or Foot and Mouth.
The EFRA Committee witnesses were: Richard Griffiths, Chief Executive, British Poultry Council; Paul Kelly, turkey supplier, Kelly Turkeys; James Pearce-Higgins, Director of Science, British Trust for Ornithology; David Holdsworth, Chief Executive, Animal Plant Health Agency; Christine Middlemiss, Chief Veterinary Officer.