The Spread of Avian Flu in the UK Unlikely to Affect Trade

Frozen Whole Chicken
Value Added Chicken Meat
United Kingdom
Sustainability & Environmental Impact
The spread of the avian flu in the UK in the fall/winter season of 2021/2022 is reaching new heights with 40 affected premises and the culling of more than half a million birds. Despite concern from veterinary authorities and the introduction of increased security measures at poultry farms, there is no fear for the poultry trade as of December 2021. In the current situation, where UK poultry exports to the EU are negatively affected by the consequences of Brexit, a wider spread of avian flu and possible implementations of import bans in main export destination markets would be catastrophic for the UK poultry industry.

Avian flu spreads in the UK

While countries around the world continue to battle Covid, not only human populations areaffected and restricted by the outbreak of respiratory diseases. The High Pathogenicity Avian influenza, more commonly known as avian flu or HPAI, has spread widely across Europe during 2021. Although avian flu outbreaks have become a common occurrence in Europe that has been hit during the fall/winter seasons of 2014/15, 2016/17 and 2020/21, the current levels in the UK are now exceptionally high according to UK Chief Veterinary Officer Christine Middlemiss. As of 9 December 2021, 40 premises are reported to be affected and this figure is likely to increase in the coming time, whereas the detected cases in fall/winter of 2020/2021 was 26.

In-depth investigations of avian flu have concluded that risks for humans consuming meat or eggs from affected animals are low. Yet, the type of influenza has previously been seen in humanis that have had extended contact with affected animals. For birds however, the avian flu can cause severe damages to the nervous and respiratory systems and has the potential to kill entire flocks of especially turkeys and chickens in a short time span. Hence, containing and limiting the disease spread is vital for the UK's poultry industry, and therefore an Avian Influenza Prevention Zone was declared in the beginning of November, which forces all bird owners to keep their animals indoors.

UK poultry meat production and trade

The total poultry meat production of the UK was 1.98M* MT in 2020 and over the past ten years, the production increased 26% from 1.57M MT in 2010. The production trend shows no signs that the avian flu outbreaks of 2014/2015 and 2016/2017 hit the industry to an extent, where it had a significant impact on the poultry meat production.
The vast majority of the poultry meat production in 2020 were broilers (87%) followed by boiling fowls (8%), turkeys (4%) and ducks (1%).
For Jan-Oct 2021, the production is on par with the same period of 2020 with only a small fall of 0.77% of production equivalent to 12,890 MT.

Data source: UK Gov Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

In 2020, the domestic consumption of poultry meat in the UK was 30.45 kg per capita and the UK ranked third in global poultry import value in 2020 with USD 1.27 billion.
The imports of poultry meat was 415,561 MT in 2020, a fall of 12% from 470,183 MT in 2019. In Q1 2021, import quantities fell 24% YoY, while for Q1-Q3 imports are down 6.5% YoY.

Imports to the UK are almost exclusively from EU countries that hold an import market share of over 98%. The remaining poultry meat is imported from Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Thailand and Ukraine.In the event that the avian flu spreads further and more bird farm populations are culled, the UK may be forced to rely more heavily on imports.

Data source: Trademap, HS code 0207

In 2020, the UK exported poultry meat worth USD 381 million with the Netherlands, France and Ireland being the top three destinations in descending order. Data from Q1-Q3 2021 reveal a decrease in export volumes of 31.8% YoY. UK poultry farmers claim that the decrease in exports is explained by the consequences of Brexit. Since the UK was deemed a “third country” in the eyes of the EU since the start of 2021, and thus subjected to time-consuming safety and documentation checks, export destinations of UK poultry have changed and volumes gone down. From exports previously being shipped predominantly to EU countries, the UK’s top 5 poultry meat export destinations in Q3 2021 include Ghana, Benin and Gabon along the Netherlands and Belgium.

In case the avian flu spreads further within the UK, the lengthy safety and documentation checks for exports to the EU may be converted into an actual import ban as experienced by Ukraine in 2020, Turkey in 2005 or the USA in 2004.

Low risk for trade disturbances despite previous bans

The UK has previously experienced temporary bans on import of UK poultry products in Hong Kong, South Korea and the Philippines among others. Whereas some bans have applied only to affected regions within the UK, others have been implemented on a national level. If similar bans were to be implemented in the main markets it would spark severe concern in the UK poultry industry. In the beginning of December 2021 it was reported that 500,000 captive birds have been culled in recent months in the attempt to contain the avian flu, and while this represents a very low number considering that 102 million birds were slaughtered in the UK in October 2021 alone, the veterinary authorities are concerned. For now, trade is unlikely to be affected but a further increase in the number of infected premises in the winter months could soon change this prediction.

*Carcass weights, excludes other bird types, e.g. geese


UK Gov Defra: Latest poultry and poultry meat statistics

OECD Data: Meat consumption

Science Media Centre: Expert reaction to avian flu in the UK

BBC: UK chief vet warns avian flu at phenomenal level in UK

The Guardian: Minister confirms UK has been hit by record bird flu outbreak

The British Poultry Council: Meat industry proposes new approach to minimise impact on trade with EU

The Poultry Site: Hong Kong suspends poultry imports from Russia, Netherlands and UK on bird flu fears

The Poultry Site: South Korea and Taiwan ban UK poultry imports on bird flu fears

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