China confirms bird flu, says food supplies safe

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BEIJING, Sep 18 (Reuters) China today sought to reassure consumers already spooked by a slew of food scandals that poultry was safe to eat after officials confirmed the first H5N1 bird flu outbreak since May.

The Ministry of Agriculture said on its Web site (www.agri.gov.cn) late on Monday that 36,130 ducks had been culled following the outbreak in Panyu district of the southern metropolis of Guangzhou, not far from Hong Kong.

''All areas which have bird flu outbreaks have to stop trade in live poultry across the board, and shut wet markets,'' Zhou Bohua, director of the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, told a news conference in Beijing.

His department, along with the Health Ministry and other government bodies, all worked together to cull birds and make sure slaughter houses were regulated, he said.

''For pork, poultry and other sensitive foods which have a close relationship with people, there is supervision carried out at every step of the way to guarantee product quality in the market,'' Zhou added.

China has been trying to clean up its food and manufacturing sectors following a string of problems with everything from toys to pet food, which has alarmed consumers at home and around the world.

''UNDER CONTROL'' The Agriculture Ministry said the Guangdong bird flu strain was confirmed as a subtype of the H5N1 strain by the National Avian Influenza Reference Laboratory, but that there was no reason to panic.

''At present, the epidemic has been bought under effective control,'' it said, adding there had been no other reports of outbreaks in the nearby area.

In Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post quoted a Guangzhou official as saying more than 100,000 birds were to be destroyed in the next few days to prevent bird flu from spreading.

''We would rather kill 100,000 ducks wrongfully than miss even one (that has the virus),'' Su Zequn, vice mayor of Panyu county's Sixian village, told the newspaper.

It also quoted Yu Yedong, the director of the Guangdong Animal Vaccination Centre, as saying that although almost all poultry in the province had been vaccinated, it took at least 21 days for vaccines to create enough antibodies in birds.

Yesterday, Hong Kong suspended chilled and frozen duck and geese imports from Guangdong province following China's announcement that poultry there was suspected to be infected with H5N1.

China's last poultry case of the virus was in May, in the central province of Hunan.

With the world's biggest poultry population and millions of backyard birds roaming free, China is at the centre of the fight against bird flu.

Scientists fear the bird flu virus could mutate into a form that could pass easily from person to person, sparking a global pandemic.

There have been 25 human cases, including 16 deaths, from the virus in China and dozens of outbreaks in birds that have led to the culling of millions of fowl.

Reuters SS DB096

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