Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Unavoidable Topic: Bird Flu

Most of my friends, and most of the blogs I read, successfully avoided making a comment on the non-story that was Celebrity Big Brother last month. I kind of hoped the same thing would be the case for the ridiculousness that is Bird Flu Panic - the mainstream media get shouty, but among ourselves, we're not too bothered. No such luck. I realised I had to make some sort of comment on the matter when a friend of mine from the Darlington area contacted me to gleefully inform me of his plans to purchase a chicken and drive around with it in his car, just because he could. Or more to the point, because I can't, as I am within the exclusion zone.

The media is making every effort it can to scare us about the bird-flu thing. Can you imagine another situation where "man has a bit of a cold" in the UK in early February would turn into headline news on the front page of

Taking it even further was 103.4 The Beach, which is the only radio station with a decent signal on this outlying edge of the country. Their website asks:
Bird flu is reported at Bernard Matthews in Halesworth. Are you concerned?
-Yes - especially as this has claimed human lives overseas
-Only for those workers who have come into contact with them
-No - the officials say there is nothing to fear and I trust them

That's leading enough - and no option for "I'm not scared because I actually have my own opinions" - however the announcer Pip and I heard the other day was phrasing it more along the lines of:
"Are you concerned about bird flu? Do you think that only workers in the industry are at risk? Or perhaps (voice changes to tone of utter disbelief) you ACTUALLY believe everything the so-called experts are saying and that there really is nothing to worry about?!?" We ended up shouting at the radio. It seems like they are trying to create a panic.

Personally, I'm not really worried at all about bird-flu as a health issue. Regular normal seasonal flu kills plenty more people, as do a hundred other illnesses. I do not own any chickens and I wasn't planning on visiting any farms. Any chicken I eat is properly prepared and thoroughly cooked anyway. (If, after saying that, I do happen to die horribly of H5N1, then you may all dance on my grave shouting "told you so!" However I will not be held responsible if my ghost infects those who do this).

BUT I am worried about bird flu in an economic and social sense. You see, Bernard Matthews is pretty much THE biggest employer around here. Then there's about half a dozen other factories dealing wholly or partially with chicken. Not to mention the farms. It's a big industry here.

When we had the BSE hoo-ha, a lot of people stopped eating British beef. Some stopped eating beef altogether, others bought imported beef. Supermarkets stopped stocking British beef altogether for a time. Farms were crippled.

If the media continues to try and upset the public over bird flu, the poultry industry is likely to feel the same effects. Less demand for chicken and turkey. Imports being preferred over the British produce. Mr Matthews won't need to run his UK factory at full capacity. He might decide to begin moving ops abroad. I asked a friend of a friend, who used to work there, what he thought. Here's what I was told, I've tried to be accurate although bear in mind it's not an exact quote as I don't often tape discussions with people. ;)

"The company themselves don't really have that many employees at a factory-floor level. They get people via agencies on really short contracts that usually get renewed so long as the person wants to work there. Usually a contract is four weeks. If the factory doesn't need to run at full capacity, they don't need to sack people and deal with all the redundancy stuff. Remember, the workers aren't employees of BM. They're being provided by the agencies, and it's the agencies who deal with the contracts. So one month, an agency might have 100 BM contracts available. The next month, they have 90 contracts available. But no one's been "sacked". Of course, there's a pretty high turnover of staff - people get better jobs or leave because of illness, maternity, whatever - so the little fluctuations aren't really noticed. But if there's anything big, or if the factory closes completely, a lot of people are going to be utterly screwed."

Disclaimer: That is not an official Bernard Matthews statement. It is simply the paraphrased opinion of someone who no longer works there, of what he percieved the situation to be when he did work there, and how he thinks things might pan out. For official Bernard Matthews statements, see their website.

For now, I think if I worked at BM I would be making sure my CV was up to date and that I had an interview suit that fitted. If I worked for the Jobcentre, I would be trying to clear my desk to deal with a possible influx of new applications for JSA. And if I worked within one of the agencies, I might invest in a suit of armour...

Edited about a minute after posting to fix a broken link.
Edited 0953 on 8 Feb 07, "HN51" to "H5N1", thanks Jo :)


Anonymous said...

"...-No - the officials say there is nothing to fear and I trust them"

You must be from another planet, or very very stupid.

Do you recall a certain Government Minister feeding beef to his child on national TV?

What about the officials telling us all about WMDs and the 45 minutes left to live?

Mary said...


Did you even READ the post?

That line was from the radio station's questionnaire.

My bugbear with the radio station is that you had to (a) say you trusted government officials (no) or (b), say that you were scared in some way about the virus (also no).

My not-being-worried has very little to do with government officials and quite a bit to do with just not giving a monkeys about an illness that is amazingly rare if one has no feathers!

Jo said...

H5N1, not HN51.

I lived in South East Asia during the SARS outbreak. It was scary - school was closed, then when it re-opened we had to take our temperatures each morning in registration and before each exam began.

However, as far as I know, H5N1 hasn't yet managed to spread from person to person, only from bird to person. When it mutates and starts spreading person to person, then there will almost certainly be an epidemic of unpleasant proportions. However, the world has had flu epidemics before. Lots of people die - which is awful for those people and their nearest and dearest - but civilisation will bounce back. Also, H5N1 has been threatening us with nasties for three or four years now, and hasn't managed to mutate yet as far as I know, so there's no point in panicking just yet (unless you're a regular chicken-snogger).

Mary said...

Cheers Jo, I've edited and credited accordingly.

This is kind of it. For the moment at least, things like regular seasonal flu and other respiratory illnesses are a much more certain killer for Average Bob.

Vic said...

BSE, Foot and Mouth, Bird Flu - when will we learn that highly-industrialized production of meat is a bad idea.

For example- what on earth are we doing importing 37 tonnes of turkey from Hungary per week to just one factory?

Mary said...

Well Vic, if you want I'll see if I can get my anonymous friend to let us know exactly what we do to 37 tonnes of turkey. But I'm afraid it might not all be savoury - do you remember a while back when everyone was oh so "shocked" about factory employees playing football with a turkey? ;-)

In all seriousness, it's not just Christmas dinners and turkey twizzlers. A lot of it turns into animal food, or additional "meat content" in cheap hotdogs, that sort of thing. I'd also hazard a guess that a certain amount of what is imported in the form of whole live turkeys is then exported again in the form of processed products. And assuming it's live turkeys, there's a fair bit of that weight that's bone, feathers, gristle, offal, etc.

Alternatively the BM website I linked to in the post may have some clues.

Vic said...

Good way to spread a quantity of disease internationally, though.

Obviously with Bird Flu it's not only mass poultry production that's the problem, but it seems to be the major source.

Yes, I have little doubt that some of the import ends up back in Hungary marked as Product of Hungary with, of course, no mention of the 1000? 2000? mile trip.

The amount still amazes me, when that's just one meat product from one country to one factory here per week.

Of course, it's not only meat that this applies to either, but it seems to me that it's the biggy. If my brainfog has allowed me to remember correctly - one third of the earth's land is used for meat production, one third of the crops are used as agricultural animal feed and, at it's most intensive, it takes 100,000 litres of water to produce one kilo of beef.

*takes deep breath and steps down from soap box ;-)*

Mary said...

don't give me beef guilt, I'm cooking a nice big load of beef stew at the moment!

(I cook loads and freeze most of it as single portions. Plus, having the oven on at a low temperature for several hours heats the flat :) )

Vic said...

Nah, you're alright :-). I should have said I wasn't saying don't eat meat, just perhaps eat a little less. Certainly we need to waste a lot less. The amount that goes in the landfill/incinerator between production and consumer - via Supermarkets or (god forbid) fast food restaurant is verging on criminal.

Ok, I really am off me soapbox now :-)

Anonymous said...

I'm with you Vic, the way animals are kept in this country and abroad is for the most part disgusting, and I'm not in the slightest bit surprised that infections like this are so easily spread.

As for the media reporting, I think it's important that this sort of thing is kept in the public domain - what if something much worse were to come of this and nothing had been said you would be amongst the people whinging that the people weren't told enough. It strikes me that journalists can't win in the eyes of some.

Mary said...

Anonymous: I agree that conditions for a lot of animals are beyond awful and that, as you say, it's hardly surprising infections spread.

I also agree that the media has a duty to report when stuff like this happens. But there's reporting, and there's sensationalism. To tell us in a calm and balanced manner that H5N1 had been found, what was being done about it, and what various sciencey-bods thought of it, would be one thing. To keep squeezing it and squeezing it for days on end, making "man has sniffle" a headline, and outright trying to scare people, is quite another.