BRUSSELS - The European Union gave a green light today to plans by France and the Netherlands to vaccinate millions of hens, ducks and geese against bird flu which is spreading across Europe.
It is the EU's first precautionary vaccination programme against the disease. The French and the Dutch, the bloc's top two poultry producers, are concerned that the H5N1 strain of bird flu could rampage through their huge flocks and also damage their poultry trade.
Health experts say there is no risk from eating properly cooked meat, but poultry sales have slumped after bird flu reached the heart of Europe.
Bird flu remains largely an animal disease but has killed 92 people since late 2003. Victims contract the disease through close contact with infected birds.
EU member Britain took a strong stand against the use of vaccines, saying they could hide and spread the disease.
In France, vaccination will start immediately for ducks and geese in three areas, while the Netherlands will offer voluntary vaccination for free-range laying hens and backyard poultry.
"The vaccination programmes are authorised only for specific birds in specified regions and will be subject to rigorous surveillance and control requirements," the European Commission said in a statement after a meeting of EU animal health experts.
The controls include the ability to distinguish between vaccinated poultry and birds with the virus. Trade in poultry and poultry products will be subject to strict controls.
France will vaccinate geese and ducks in three departments -- Landes, Loire-Atlantique and Vendee -- considered high-risk. Around 900,000 birds should have been immunised by April 1.
For the Netherlands, vaccination will be voluntary throughout the country and an alternative to the requirement that these birds be kept indoors.
In 2003, the Netherlands suffered an outbreak of a different type of bird flu, causing the slaughter of 30 million birds. The Dutch have not reported cases in the current outbreak.
The EU has been split on the merits of preventive vaccination against animal diseases, especially since it can damage trade if a country's meat exports are shunned by importers due to consumer fears over a possible health risk.
Supporters of vaccination argue the benefits outweigh the risks and see the measure as an antidote to slumping poultry prices as shoppers steer away from meat they think might be "contaminated" by bird flu.
French poultry consumption was down by up to 30 per cent this week after the country reported its first case of the deadly H5N1 strain in a wild duck. In Italy, where H5N1 has also been confirmed, chicken sales fell by 70 per cent in just one week.
A spokesman at the Dutch agriculture ministry said the Dutch government was not going to pay any vaccination costs since each farmer would have to decide whether to vaccinate.
Trade guarantees are a key concern for Dutch farmers, since vaccinated laying hens will not be able to leave the Netherlands and strict conditions will apply for marketing eggs and meat products from these birds.
Jan Wolleswinkel, chairman of the main Dutch poultry farmers organisation, said farmers who raised free range chickens would not start vaccinating if they were not able to export.
"We are very anxious about the trade," he told Reuters. "Costs are not such a big question -- we know that when there's vaccination, it's farmers who pay the costs."