As you may know and be reading about, a case of H5N1 in turkeys in the UK is sparking some intense media coverage. All the experts agreed (and still agree, as do I) that the risk to people is very small. But the handling of information and communication by the powers that be in this case ought to be a cautionary tale. If companies and countries expect their citizens to be willing and trusting partners in public health and safety ventures, complete transparency and timely and honest pronouncements need to be standard procedure. Trust, once lost, is difficult to regain.
At first, the company (Bernard Matthews) and government officials denied any possibility of company responsibility, suggesting a small bird may have flown into one of four sheds where the turkeys are housed through a ventilation shaft. While plausible (independent experts suggested the same based on available data), the theory raised questions about bird surveillance throughout the UK (there were no other reports of birds infected with H5N1 closer than Hungary, where there was a known H5N1 outbreak in swans).
More importantly, any possibility of either a Bernard Matthews Hungarian affiliate's being a source of the virus, or the possibility of affected meat getting into the food chain was vigorously denied.
Bernard Matthews produces 8 million turkeys a year in the United Kingdom and also has a corporate subsidiary in Hungary. Defra [the responsible British agency] has said the virus isolated in Suffolk is similar to strains found in Hungary in January, but Windsor says that "no Bernard Matthews staff recently traveled from Hungary back to Suffolk," and Hungarian officials have announced "no link between the two outbreaks," she says.
Naturally enough, the company put up an internet Q&A for consumers. From the current Bernard Matthews home page:
Is it safe to eat Bernard Matthews products?
Properly cooked Bernard Matthews products are perfectly safe to eat. Advice from the Food Standards Agency has been and remains that avian flu does not pose a food safety risk for UK consumers. You have probably heard Government officials from Defra saying exactly the same thing.
Should I stop buying your products?
No, not at all - the Food Standards Agency says that people who eat properly cooked poultry are not at risk of catching the disease.
Will Bernard Matthews remove its products from supermarkets?
No. None of our products will be recalled following the Food Standard Agency's advice that avian flu does not pose a food safety risk for UK consumers.
That's all well and good, except two days ago what appeared on the same company web page was this:
So none of the products I have at home in my fridge or freezer are affected?
That's right, none of the affected poultry entered the food chain so there is no need to worry.
Am I at risk of catching the disease?
No, not at all - people who eat poultry products are not at risk of catching the disease. This is because the disease has not entered the food chain and was identified at a very early stage.
Unfortunately for Bernard Matthews, what immediately followed was questions about whether infected meat had gotten into the food chain... possibly indirectly from Hungary. this From the Guardian:
Official: H5N1 may be in human food chain
Friday February 9, 2007
The Food Standards Agency confirmed today that it was investigating the
possibility that turkey meat contaminated by bird flu at a Bernard Matthews poultry farm has entered the human food chain.
The government's chief scientist, Sir David King, said the agency would be
considering ordering supermarkets to remove packaged turkey from shelves
after it emerged that Bernard Matthews had been transporting turkey meat
from Hungary to the Suffolk farm where the H5N1 strain of the virus was
The environment minister Ben Bradshaw warned that legal action could be
launched following the latest developments and possible breaches in
bio-security at the plant.
"As part of the investigation into what might have caused the outbreak of
bird flu in a Suffolk poultry farm, the agency will check that no infected
meat has got into food," the FSA said in a statement.
There's a big difference between accidental introduction of H5N1 into a biosecure plant and a breach of procedure that led a Hungarian affiliate of the company to have semi-processed meat sold into the food chain.
Britain's first outbreak of bird flu may have been caused by semi-processed turkey meat imported from Hungary, where the disease is prevalent.
Britain's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials said 38 tonnes a week had been sent to the processing plant of the Bernard Matthews turkey farm in Suffolk, where the H5N1 strain of the virus erupted a week ago.
The revelation is a remarkable about-turn. Earlier, Environment Secretary David Miliband had assured the Commons that there was "no Hungarian connection" and that the outbreak had most likely been brought to Britain by wild birds.
So, rather than issuing a simple "We don't know yet, we are vigorously investigating", or using the opportunity to revisit preparedness in the UK (what an opportunity!), the defensive "it can't possibly have been us or our procedures" approach was used to the detriment of more than one reputation for candor. And we wonder why 'authoritative sources' are not always trusted?
Hopefully, there will be some major lessons learned. A full investigation may lead to some answers about where the virus came from, but that investigation should also review communication practices. Spin control won't do it in a crisis. Transparency will. And while sales have not suffered, and the risk to humans is very small, this is clearly an opportunity for government and company officials who think 'everything is under control' because 'it can't happen here' to rethink what they think they know. It can happen, and it just did. So, the UK should review their preparedness plans, review biosecurity procedures, and review communications plans. Based on what's in the news, they all need work.
Update [2007-2-13 7:43:42 by DemFromCT]:: Accidental find alerted bird flu inspectors to suspect turkey imports
· Discarded wrapper exposed meat's origins
· Bernard Matthews plant cleared to reopen
You can't make this stuff up.