Animal Aid

The Bernard Matthews bird flu outbreak

Posted 5 February 2007
clipping from Daily SportDirector Andrew Tyler's piece in the Daily Sport

Britain looks the other way while birds are brutally destroyed

Britain prides itself on being a nation of animal lovers and yet barely a word has been uttered about the suffering endured by the 160,000 birds who have been shoved into crates and gassed to death during the Bernard Matthews bird flu outbreak. Under normal circumstances, intensively reared poultry become traumatised and a great many suffocate and die from shock when 'catching gangs' move in to crate them for the trip to the killing factory. The Bernard Matthews birds - with no commercial value - would inevitably have been treated more roughly than normal.

More than 2,000 of the company's birds died in one week inside the giant sheds from the terrible disease itself. One Hong Kong chicken farmer described the H5N1 symptoms: 'Their bodies began shaking as if they were suffocating and thick saliva started coming out of their mouths ... Their faces went dark green and black.' (1) Pathologists described the birds' organs as being reduced to a 'bloody pulp'.

Despite the birds' severe suffering, the first Bernard Matthews victims went unnoticed because the attrition rate in intensive turkey and chicken sheds is always so high. In the UK, more than one in 20 birds die before they can be slaughtered, with 130 million broiler chickens perishing every year from heart disease alone. (2)

The industry acknowledges that some 100 viral, bacterial and musculo-skeletal conditions commonly affect commercial poultry.

Bird flu: a disease of factory farming

It is little wonder that the best evidence points to the new deadly strains of bird flu having begun inside the huge, windowless units of the sort operated by Bernard Matthews. Intensive turkey sheds pack in 15,000 or more birds. The equivalent chicken units may confine 100,000 birds, crowded together shoulder to shoulder. With the litter becoming increasingly saturated with urine and faeces during the birds' growing cycle (6 weeks for chickens; around 12 weeks for turkeys), viruses and other pathogens have the perfect environment in which to flourish and mutate into more virulent strains.

Until the current outbreak, the industry - aided by its government allies - had insisted that wild birds are to blame but with the migratory season over, industry apologists are devoid of excuses.

In its natural state, the avian influenza virus has existed for millions of years as a harmless, intestinal infection of aquatic birds such as ducks. In commercially reared poultry, bird flu has gone from a comparatively mild disease to a lethal condition that is striking major producers around the world more and more frequently.

Bernard Matthews: a company with form

That a Bernard Matthews production unit should be hit by bird flu comes as no surprise to those who have monitored the company's activities over the years. Undercover investigations in 2000, 2002, 2005 and 2006 produced evidence of crowded, dirty conditions with severely injured, diseased and dead birds.

In 2000, turkeys at Beck Farm, Haveringland, Norfolk were found lying dead by undercover investigators, while others had festering wounds. Live turkeys were seen milling around carcasses and pecking at them.

In September last year, two of the company's workers at the same Norfolk farm were convicted of battering turkeys with a broom handle, used like a baseball bat. The solicitor defending the men described the conditions in the unit as 'appalling' and said: 'You can see why people move to an organic, more open type of farming.'

The Hungarian connection

The H5N1 strain that has killed the turkeys in Matthews' Suffolk operation is reported to be the same type as that which resulted in the destruction of thousands of geese on a farm in Hungary last month. Bernard Matthews owns Saga Foods, one of Hungary's leading processors of poultry and other meats.

Despite poultry sheds being nominally sealed off from the outside world, diseased material can easily enter them. An expert in the field, Dr Mohammad Yousaf, (3) has indicated that H5N1 and other such strains can find their way in through faecal traces or moisture in the air - or through the medium of feed, water, supplies, cages, clothes, delivery vehicles, mammals and even insects. Equally, diseased material can just as easily leave such 'biosecure' units.



  1. Michael Greger MD, Bird Flu: A virus of our own hatching (Green press, 2006), pp. 34-35.
  2. Compassion in World Farming Trust, 'The welfare of broiler chickens in the European Union', 2005, p. 2.
  3. Avian influenza outbreak hits the industry again, Dr Mohammad Yousaf, University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, Pakistan, World Poultry, Vol 20 No 3 2004.

Notes to Editor

  • For full background and interviews, contact Andrew Tyler on 01732 364546
  • ISDN line available for broadcast-quality interviews.

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