The great British turkey gamble

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Guaranteeing a fresh turkey for your Christmas table may be a tricky call this year, says Andrew Livingston

Sadly, this year will be the first time in years that we as a farm aren’t growing our own turkeys. With Avian Influenza (AI) continuing throughout the year we couldn’t risk having 30 or so turkeys potentially contracting the disease and infecting our shed of free-range layer hens.
I miss the sight and sound of the gobbling giants down our drive, but I am definitely going to enjoy a plucking-free Christmas this year!

Turkey roulette
It hasn’t been a good year for the turkey industry.
Last year, Norfolk, the traditional home of turkeys, survived AI; this autumn the county has been decimated with cases. The Animal Plant Health Agency’s map of cases is horrific viewing.
Turkeys and geese are more affected by AI than other poultry, which means that when one farm goes down it’s just a matter of time before neighbouring farms fall to the disease.
If you can’t do without a turkey on the table this Christmas, my personal suggestion is that you buy early and have a frozen one on standby; waiting for fresh-farmed turkey is a game of Russian roulette this year.

Vaccines and superchilling
One point of good news for the industry is that the government this year reintroduced the process of superchilling.
Reserved for seasonal birds such as turkeys, geese and ducks for Christmas, super-chilled birds are frozen rapidly and then defrosted in December to be sold on the supermarket shelves.
Superchilling storage has no effect on the meat taste or texture. Of course, just because your turkey is in the fridge doesn’t mean it’s actually fresh. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is advising consumers buying turkey, duck, capon or goose products in the run-up to Christmas that they may have been previously frozen and defrosted before being placed on sale as chilled. The products should be clearly labelled as ‘defrosted’ and are suitable for home freezing if the label says so.
So if you are picky, choose carefully and read the smallest print on the label.
Ultimately, it’s a bit late for this Christmas, but this means that next year birds can be slaughtered in the summer, frozen and then defrosted for Christmas to avoid the risks of bird flu. Further ahead, there is brightening news that Norway has begun using AI vaccines on their birds. The government will have to make a sharp U-turn on the vaccine policy, but something needs to change as compensating farmers is costing the country millions of pounds.
Currently poultry is not vaccinated due to the risk of bird flu going into the food chain and infecting the public.
Like the Covid vaccine, the AI counterpart doesn’t stop birds from catching the disease but just prevents death. The risk is then what effect the disease has on humans if they eat infected meat.
You could say turkeys voting for the vaccine is the same as them voting for Christmas, but I have heard first-hand accounts of the effect of the disease on a flock of birds and it is harrowing.
It’s not just the financial implication for farmers … it’s the mental strain of having thousands of birds culled by the APHA – if they haven’t all died before they get there.
If you’re lucky it may be turkey for Christmas this year.
But if something doesn’t change soon, prepare to be carving Christmas trout on the big day!

Sponsored by Trethowans – Law as it should be

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