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S.Korea ups bird flu alert; foot-and-mouth spreads

* Confirms 16 bird flu cases, 115 foot-and-mouth cases

* Culls 1.4 mln pigs and cattle; vaccinates over 1.2 mln

* Retail meat prices hike; fish shares rally in stock market

SEOUL, Jan 12 (Reuters) - South Korea, already battling a serious outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, has raised its bird flu alert level after detecting the H5N1 avian influenza virus at poultry farms in four provinces.

Asia’s fourth-largest economy has culled 10 percent of its cattle and pigs as it tries to contain the foot-and-mouth outbreak, triggering a spike in domestic beef and pork prices and exacerbating food inflation. The government on Tuesday announced plans to boost food supply to cope with rising prices ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday. [ID:nTOE70A03G]

South Korea raised its bird flu alert a notch from ‘caution’ to ‘watch’, the agriculture ministry said in a statement late on Tuesday.

“The ministry decided to raise the alert as the disease is spreading more quickly,” the statement said.

There have been 34 suspected cases of bird flu in poultry, with 16 cases confirmed, the ministry said.

Outbreaks of bird flu have prompted the authorities to cull 470,000 poultry, or 0.36 percent of the domestic stock, a ministry official said on Wednesday, while continuing the quarantine of commercial duck and chicken breeding farms in affected areas.

This comes as the number of livestock culled to contain foot and mouth rises rapidly. The total of pigs and cattle slaughereed stands at 1.4 million, the ministry said in its statement, up from around 1 million on Friday.

The outbreak of bird flu was first confirmed on Dec. 31 in ducks in the city of Cheonan, South Chungcheong province, and in chickens in the city of Iksan in North Jeolla province. [ID:nTOE6BU00V]

South Korea has had no human cases of the high-severity bird flu strain. It has had three outbreaks of the virus at poultry farms in the past 10 years.

Agriculture Minister Yoo Jeong-bok has established a nationwide team to contain the spread of the disease, the government said.

Authorities suspect the latest outbreak was brought to the peninsula by migratory birds.

Health experts fear the disease could mutate to a form that could be easily transmitted human-to-human, sparking a deadly global pandemic. Almost all of the human H5N1 infections to date were believed to have taken place directly from birds to humans.

Since 2003 the H5N1 strain of bird flu has infected around 500 people globally, killing nearly 60 percent. Most of the deaths have been in Asia.

FOOT-AND-MOUTH

Foot-and-mouth disease has spread across six of South Korea’s 16 provinces since the outbreak began in November. The country may need to boost imports of beef and pork from the United States, Australia and Canada to compensate for lost supply.

A net importer of beef, pork and chicken, South Korea confirmed 115 cases of 158 foot-and-mouth suspected reports as of Wednesday, the statement said.

Hundreds of thousands have been working day and night to contain foot-and-mouth by slaughtering some animals and vaccinating over 1.2 million mostly cattle, under a target to vaccinate 2.1 million in eight provinces.

Wholesale prices of beef and pork as of Tuesday soared by 9 percent and 22 percent respectively from December’s average prices, the ministry said.

The U.S. is the largest exporter of poultry and pork to South Korea and the second-largest beef exporter after Australia. Canada is the second-largest pork exporter to South Korea.

The nationwide outbreaks, originating in pigs in the city of Andong in North Gyeongsang province on Nov. 28, have prompted all livestock markets to be closed, while some zoos have also been shut. [ID:nTOE70604P]

Foot-and-mouth disease affects livestock including sheep, cows and pigs. Meat from infected animals is not harmful to humans.

Shares in seafood processors rallied as the rapid spread of foot-and-mouth disease and avian influenza pointed to a jump in seafood consumption.

Shares in Sajo Oyang and Dong Won Fish , major seafood processors, jumped by the daily limit of 15 percent on Wednesday. (Additional report by Park Jung-yeon and Chang Yeo-jung; Editing by Jeremy Laurence and Simon Webb)

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