NOGARO, France (Reuters) - The mood among the 300 foie gras producers packed into a town hall in southwest France last week was far from festive, having been forced into a huge cull of birds caused by a second bird flu outbreak in as many years at a loss of millions of euros.
“We have to put this fire out before we can even think about producing again,” duck farmer Christophe Barrailh told them.
The head of the foie gras producers’ group Cifog was speaking to farmers in Nogaro in the Gers, the French region by far the worst affected by the fast-spreading virus.
A similar outbreak a year ago sent foie gras output plunging 25 percent. That caused a 10 percent jump in retail prices of the delicacy that is produced by force-feeding poultry to enlarge their livers, a practice criticized by animal rights campaigners who see the methods as cruel.
Last year’s price rise was not enough to spare the pain of duck farmers. Most are still waiting to receive 30 percent of the compensation promised them after the 2015/16 season’s outbreak caused them to halt rearing for several months.
Prices will now have to increase again, Cifog said.
And with no date set for output to resume after this year’s cull, several farmers - some wearing yellow shirts marked “angry ducks” - reacted loudly during the meeting.
“If we can’t restart, how are we going to eat?,” one asked.
French Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll sought to reassure farmers last week, saying all culls would be compensated and that missing aid from last year, essentially from the European Union, would eventually be paid.
France, which has the largest poultry flock in the EU, reported 152 outbreaks of the H5N8 type of bird flu in farms by Jan. 19. Of these, 72 were in the Gers.
The H5N8 virus has been spreading across Europe since late last year, with more than 20 countries recording cases. The strain has never been found in humans and is different from ones found in Asia, notably H7N9, which has killed more than 20 people in China.
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With the virus still not under control, it is too early to give a date for output to restart where culls had been made, scientists say, a response that has upset many in Nogaro.
Stronger security measures required after last year’s outbreak including shelters, disinfection tools and roofs to protect farmed ducks from wild birds, the main carrier of the virus, have forced many farmers to take out punishing loans.
“What will I tell my banker if you can’t give me a date?,” one young farmer shouted at the meeting.
Around 600,000 ducks have either died from the virus or been slaughtered in infected farms as of Wednesday. A further 920,000 were to be culled in France’s preventive eradication plan, Cifog’s general secretary Marie-Pierre Pe said.
This will lead to a loss for farmers estimated at 120 million euros ($128 million), she said.
Pierre Peres, who produces foie gras and other specialty foods, had to cull his 20,000 ducks late last year after discovering the H5N8 virus in two of six premises on his farm in Saint-Michel, tucked in the rolling hills of the Gers.
The bird flu virus entered the farm even though he had invested 60,000 euros on preventive measures, Peres, wearing blue overboots in a bid to prevent the virus from spreading, told Reuters during a tour of his now empty farm.
“My son, who was about to join the farm, is now thinking about doing something else because our job is so fragile,” he said.
“One blow is okay, after two, you start doubting.”
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Reporting by Sybille de La Hamaide; Editing by Andrew Callus and David Evans
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