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The fear of the bird virus

Norway has banned cage operations from 2012 for better animal health. But because of the bird flu, fresh organic birds are forced into closed halls. Norway's line is extreme, the British eco-organization believes.


[Bird flu] The tabloids and news broadcasts flood over for fear of bird flu. Children come home from kindergarten and have learned that it is dangerous to feed the ends in the park. When politicians are to act in such a situation, they must take some action to show that they are ready to protect the population from the impending threat.

Norway has introduced stricter measures to combat bird flu than our neighboring countries, although we have not detected the infection in the country. The losers are found in organic farming, among other things.

- Welcome inside! shouts Runar Sørlie. He is the fifth generation farmer's son at Skjeberg in Østfold, and has converted the farm to organic farming. 7500 white laying hens of the type Lomann tiles behind a wall. In front of us are a number of computers that control the automatic system for feeding and water supply, which measures every gram that is eaten and drunk, and calculates it all per hen and per day all year round.

- If each hen eats 20 grams more feed a day, it affects my margin by a quarter of a million annually, Sørli states, and immediately removes any possible doubt: There is no old-fashioned operation and peasant romance here. It is not the case that the animals have their own names, even though the entire production facility carries a large island for organic operation on the wall.

On 24 February, the Norwegian Food Safety Authority sent out a press release stating that it is not dangerous to drink tap water – if you are connected to a public water supply. At the time of writing, the infamous bird flu has not yet arrived in Norway.

Well, that is, here in the country both birds, humans and a number of other animals have had the flu for ages. Now, a new variant of this virus, named H5N1, has emerged, which is termed extra infectious. A few people are also affected by this disease and have died of it. Although, not nearly as many people annually die from human influenza. But, purely hypothetically, this aggressive bird flu variant can thus mutate into a new disease that preserves the violent risk of infection and also the ability to transmit directly from person to person.

Admittedly, this disease does not exist. But people are terrified. They fear for the chicken meat in the store, for feeding on the beach, for their drinking water and the southern holidays.

And that is exactly why we now stand with Runar Sørlie and his 7500 Lomann hens.

- I love this job! Exclaims Runar Sørli, and seems to mean what he says.

An attack of clairvoyance

Runar Sørli made a lucky choice a few years back. When he was to dimension the hen house, he was advised to save some money on building smaller, as the operation was to be based on the hens being out a lot. Sørli put in some extra investment, in case the future would bring bad news. This can be called a bout of clairvoyance. For something has really happened.

In October, the Norwegian Food Safety Authority decided for the first time that Norwegian, domesticated birds had to be kept indoors due to the migratory birds from Russia, which could bring the bird flu with them on their way south. Then came the snow, the ban lapsed again, and the newspaper Nationen has since had an ongoing discussion about whether it is right or wrong of the hobby chicken owners in Norsk Rasefjørfelag to refuse to publish their membership lists.

But even before the police and prosecutors had time to decide to seize such lists, on the grounds that keeping chickens is no longer a private matter, the ban was reintroduced this February. This time it is nationwide, it applies to both 'commercial' animals and hobby poultry and there are no exceptions to the rule. From now on, Norwegian birds will be kept away from sun and fresh air indefinitely.

Hit hard

Aftenposten Aften 17 February: 'The Norwegian Food Safety Authority in Oslo yesterday experienced a telephone storm from Oslo people who fear bird flu. At the same time, sales of the drug Tamiflu are exploding. ››

Bjørn Brynjolf Pedersen in Norheimsund has no reason to be optimistic about the signals from the Norwegian Food Safety Authority these days. Together with Cecilie Holm, he runs Homlagarden Organic Farm, where they specialize in breeding and selling organic live chicken and meat production of free-range organic turkey.

They should be located far outside any map of risk zones in Norway where bird flu may break out. But the disease has already hit them hard – through the Norwegian rules that will fight the virus.

Usually when Bjørn Pedersen releases the turkeys, they not only get sun and fresh air, but also a varied diet. A good pasture can make up up to 35 percent of the amount of feed. The birds eat flowers, grass, wild berries, herbs and insects they find outside. Inside, organic concentrates, water, rest and protection against predators are offered.

Now there is no longer any flock of turkeys to take a picture of at Homlagarden. The animals that were slaughtered before Christmas have not been replaced by new ones. It looks hopeless to start this year's production. The turkey house is not dimensioned to keep the whole herd inside throughout the season. With a comprehensive reduction in production, operations at the mill will decline. In the turkey and chicken farm at Homlagarden alone, the couple has invested a couple of million kroner in recent years.

Asks for compensation

Pedersen is desperate about the ban on out-of-control poultry, and has applied for a dispensation from the Norwegian Food Safety Authority and asked to let the animals out. At least until bird flu infection is detected in the country.

- I thought we had a good case. We operate healthy and sensibly. The herd is continuously monitored and is easy to follow up with any measures. We are not in a risk zone for outbreaks of the disease. Nevertheless, we were flatly rejected on the grounds that the ban applies to the whole country and without exception and that no exemptions can be granted.

He is disappointed, but understands that the authorities want to deal with the outbreak of bird flu in Europe in the best possible way.

- We are affected by the ban in a number of ways, he explains.

- First, the sale of live chicken is an important part of the income on the farm. Private customers have bought four-week-old chickens at Homlagarden for 30 years. But this comes to an abrupt end this spring as the birds can no longer be kept outside. Then no one buys chickens.

The second problem is a comprehensive explanatory and marketing problem. For a long time, Pedersen has explained to consumers that the good taste and quality of organic turkey comes from the fact that it is outgoing. When all the feed is consumed indoors, the pasture must be replaced by expensively purchased feed.

Third, in the case of indoor production, all packaging, brochures and catalogs, price calculations and lists must be changed. All slaughtering and packing takes place in a separate processing house.

- Without chicken sales and without a full-fledged organic turkey product to sell, I do not see how we will be able to run this season, Pedersen sums up in despair.

- If we do not receive compensation for interruptions and losses we suffer as a result of these regulations, the operating basis is gone.

Pedersen's demand to the Norwegian Food Safety Authority and the agricultural authorities is therefore to secure the farms that are now affected through a political decision on financial compensation.

- It is not ethically correct that a few businesses will suffer large financial losses as a result of the authorities wanting to fully protect society from bird virus transmission. The Norwegian authorities have a responsibility here.

- A press pandemic

Aftenposten's main article March 2: 'You can be infected by a bird, can you, Grandma?'

- This is an overreaction on the Norwegian side, when it comes before any virus has been detected at all. What Norway has done is extreme, exclaims Robin Maynard, communications manager at the powerful British eco-food organization Soil Association.

In the UK, organic food and animal health are high on the political agenda.

- The bird flu has developed into a press pandemic. Everyone has feared a pandemic. Now we have one, but it only exists in the press, Maynard states.

He is keen to emphasize that British eco-producers and consumers are also taking the disease seriously. What he questions in some countries is the measures taken to meet the threat.

- It's a serious illness. For bird. Measures to combat the disease should not limit what we know provides good animal health, such as moving outdoors.

Maynard says that the British Minister of Agriculture has accepted that eco-birds have a higher health standard and that continued organic farming presupposes that the birds get sun and fresh air. Netting on outdoor areas has been announced as a possible measure in the event of an outbreak in the United Kingdom.

But the Soil Association has first and foremost advocated a ring vaccination program, which means that around every possible outbreak of the disease, all birds are vaccinated within a radius of three kilometers.

- This is a civilized response to the disease. Fortunately, our government has not taken such measures as in Norway, Maynard concludes.

Manage themselves

- I'm fine enough. I'm very glad I built big enough, so I can now have the hens inside for as long as needed, says Runar Sørlie before we leave him on the farm in Østfold.

We got to taste the eggs and the farm production of organic raspberries. Sørlie hopes he can soon let the hens out in the sun again.

- They will be so happy then. It is good for the mood and health and everything. n

On 22 February, the Norwegian Food Safety Authority introduced a hunting ban in a zone of ten kilometers around every single discovery site of infected birds. So far nowhere.

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