France kicks off bird flu vaccination despite trade backlash risk

PARIS (Reuters): France started vaccinating ducks against bird flu on Monday to try and stem the virus that killed millions of birds around the world, a move that prompted the United States to impose trade restrictions on French poultry imports.

France has been among the countries worst affected by an unprecedented global spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza, commonly called bird flu, that has disrupted supply of poultry meat and eggs and sent prices rocketing in many parts of the globe in the past years.

The ravages caused to its flocks and fear that the virus could mutate into one transmissible to humans prompted the government to launch a mandatory vaccination campaign, making it the first poultry exporting country to do so.

The first shots were given on Monday morning to ducks on a farm in the Landes, a region in south-western France, in the presence of French Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau.

“It’s a moment of optimism, we have the feeling of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” Fesneau told reporters.

In total, over 60 million ducks will have to be vaccinated over a year for a total cost of 96 million euros ($102 million), of which 85 per cent will be financed by the state, duck and fois gras makers group CIFOG said in a statement welcoming the move.

“This vaccination plan … is a world first: its goal is to protect all farmed birds and should put an end to the preventive slaughter of animals, which no one wants to live with anymore,” it said.

More and more governments have been looking at vaccination as a way to contain the highly contagious bird flu. However, trade barriers such vaccination can prompt have made large poultry exporters reluctant to inoculate their birds.

The United States triggered restrictions on imports of French poultry beginning Oct 1, citing a risk of introducing the virus into the country.

Vaccinated birds may not show signs of infection, meaning it is impossible to determine whether the virus is in a flock, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) said on Friday.

Despite intensive talks, Japan was also still reluctant to accept French poultry after vaccination, Fesneau said.

Bird flu vaccination in France is initially limited to ducks, which are the most vulnerable to the virus and accounted for only 8pc of total French poultry production in 2022.