PARIS (Reuters) - The foie gras industry, hit by a bird flu crisis for the second year running, needs to change production methods to protect its poultry flocks, a producers group said on Thursday, warning that will raise the price of the delicacy.
France, which has the largest poultry flock in the European Union, has been severely hit by the H5N8 bird flu virus that has been spreading in Europe since late last year. It led to the death or culling of 3.7 million ducks in the southwestern part of the country, home to most foie gras producers, according to producers group Cifog.
"We are suffering but our responsibility now is to establish rules that will protect farmers against events that tend to recur," said Christophe Barrailh, head of Cifog.
Bird flu, also called avian influenza, is generally transmitted by migrating wild birds' feaces and feathers but the virus can then move from one farm to another if trucks or people exiting farms are not disinfected properly.
Ducks and geese, mostly reared for their livers that are artificially swollen through force-feeding to make foie gras, are most exposed to the virus due to free-range rearing and transport of animals between farms.
Among key measures, Cifog said farmers will operate from September 2018 an "all-in/all-out" production system to ensure a two week break between each batch to avoid contamination and to fully disinfect premises.
This would lead to a fall in output of around 15 percent, Barrailh said.
Cifog said it will also ask the government to order the confinement of all ducks in buildings between Nov. 15 and Jan. 15 if flocks are at risk of being infected by wild birds. It hopes to have a response from the government by mid-April.
Some farmers are against the proposals, notably smaller farm unions Confederation Paysanne and Coordination Rurale who said they would lead to an industralization of the sector.
Cifog estimated the confinement measures would need 1,000 premises to be built costing each farm about 100,000 euros ($106,000) to maintain current volumes. Some farmers will likely prefer leaving their farm empty during the risky period.
"Higher costs and lower volumes. Obviously this will mean a rise in prices," Barrailh said when asked about the impact of the measures. "That's how the market works."
Duck farmers make an average gross margin of 2.5 euros per duck, which can then make about 500 grams of foie gras.
Cifog estimated the cost of this year's bird flu outbreak for the foie gras sector at 250 million euros ($265 million)without taking account of the costs of further measures.
Editing by Elaine Hardcastle