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Prepare for the worst is new European motto

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Feb 12, 2005
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Prepare for the worst is new European motto

CBC editorial by Norman Dunn:

The million-fold autumn migration of geese and other birds into Western Europe from Northern Asia and Russia is seldom regarded with undiluted joy by most Europeans. But this year, the arrival of the wild birds is more than just a sign that winter is on its way. The flocks also bring the threat of H5N1 Avian Influenza virus.

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This extremely virulent strain is greatly feared because it could cause millions of poultry deaths, with a possibility that it could also cross-over and cause widespread human casualties.

But it's more than just the seasons which are changing. The threat of Avian Influenza demonstrates how attitudes to such perils are changing too.

European authorities already take a hardline attitude towards infectious animal diseases following a hoof-and-mouth outbreak in Britain in 2001 and by a different strain of bird flu in Holland two years ago. Quarantines are imposed quickly, there are heavy fines for failing to report suspicious animal deaths or illness, and authorities have, on occasion, even shut down tourism in some areas to prevent the spread of disease.

This time around, the EU reacted with a ban on bird and poultry meat imports and increased vigilance at airports and border crossings. Holland, Britain and Germany have either ordered free-range egg enterprises to move their birds indoors or are ready to do so at the first sign that H5N1 has breached Europe's borders. (Although producers can continue to label their products as "outdoor eggs" and still charge their usual 40 to 50% premium.)

But perhaps the greatest change is in the attitude to testing wild birds. The EU recently announced it will spend at least $1.9 million (Cdn) to test wild geese and other birds this fall.

That's just the minimum. Officials say they're willing to spend as much money as needed to test as many birds as possible.

Such an open-ended promise is highly unusual for EU bureaucrats, especially since many experts believe disease transmission from wild birds is a remote possibility.

But it is a sign of the times. The attitude these days is that it is better to be safe than sorry.

For CBC commentary, I'm farm journalist Norman Dunn in Ludwigshafen, Germany.

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