Supermarkets under fire on bird flu scare

SUPERMARKETS have been "irresponsible" and "outrageous" in their response to bird flu, Scotland's environment minister and farming representatives said yesterday.

Waitrose was pilloried by Scottish egg farmers and environment minister Ross Finnie after the English supermarket chain confirmed it did not source any of its chickens and eggs from Scotland, where it plans to open its first two stores in June.

And there were claims that on Thursday - the day after it first emerged Scotland could be suffering a possible outbreak - a number of major supermarkets cancelled orders of chicken from a Scottish supplier for this weekend. All the supermarkets contacted by The Scotsman denied the claim.

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It came as the country breathed slightly easier with the news that nine dead birds out of 14 from Scotland that were undergoing testing had not died from the lethal H5N1 strain of the disease.

However the Scottish Executive stressed there was an ongoing process of testing dead birds. "As and when we get the results back, we will keep the public updated," a spokeswoman said.

Britain's testing of dead birds has now become a 24-hour, seven days a week operation in light of the discovery of the deadly virus in a dead swan in Cellardyke harbour in Fife, but last night there was no news about the results of the latest possible cases.

A government helpline for members of the public to report a dead swan, goose or duck, or three or more other dead wild or garden birds in the same area, has been inundated with responses. It received nearly 4,000 calls between Thursday morning and 3pm yesterday.

But there were no signs of the panic over eating eggs and chicken that have been seen in other countries when the first cases of the virus in wild birds was reported, with supermarkets reporting that sales were remaining strong.

However, the actions of the supermarkets, rather than their customers, came under attack yesterday from three different sources.

Mr Finnie said Waitrose, which is part of the John Lewis Partnership, had been wrong to confirm that it did not currently source any chicken or eggs from Scotland at this time.

"I'm very concerned about that... for a supermarket to imply that there was a risk from buying Scottish produce was, in my view, irresponsible," he said.

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At a press conference in Anstruther near Cellardyke yesterday, Mr Finnie had stressed the need to remain calm and respond in a "proportionate" way.

"One thing we are trying very hard to do is 'not turn a drama into a crisis,'" he said.

He added that it was "right and proper" that the First Minister, Jack McConnell, should not rush back to Scotland from the Tartan Week celebrations in the US, which he said might give the impression that Scotland was in a major "disease situation".

The National Farmers Union also criticised Waitrose, with deputy chief executive officer James Withers saying: "Waitrose is saying it was done with the best of intentions, that they were responding with a statement of fact. I think it was more to do with naivety than an attempt to exploit the situation."

While his tone was forgiving, Moira Henderson, chairwoman of the Scottish Egg Producer Retailers' Association (SEPRA), was outraged. "Waitrose down in England had a person on TV reassuring their customers that none of their meat or eggs came from Scotland," she said.

"That's absolutely unbelievable, totally irresponsible - it doesn't help the message that it is safe to eat, but they are just trying to look after their sales."

And Mrs Henderson added that she had been told more than one supermarket had cancelled an order of poultry meat for this weekend from a supplier, who she said had to remain anonymous to safeguard its livelihood.

"Some major supermarkets actually cancelled their weekend orders," she said.

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"I think it's totally, totally outrageous and frankly supermarkets need drawing into line.

"It's a highly irresponsible attitude. I don't believe the public were frightened by it [the Cellardyke swan]. The media I have spoken to have all been very supportive in trying to get the message across that it is not a food issue.

"They are trying to support us in that, but if the supermarkets haven't bought in sufficient supplies, that's not going to help the producers, is it?

"I think it is quite extraordinary, especially as the Food Standards Agency is saying it is not a problem."

Mr Withers said he had "heard rumours" to that effect but had been assured that supermarkets had not made any changes to their supplies.

"If there is evidence on the ground that suggests otherwise, we will be talking to the supermarkets. The advice is clear, this is not a food safety issue. That's absolutely black and white," he said.

Waitrose, which has 174 stores in England and Wales but plans to open its first two stores in Edinburgh this summer, said its response to media questioning had been misinterpreted.

"Just to clarify our position in respect to Scotland, we have confirmed we do not yet source any eggs or poultry from Scotland, but that was in response to being asked the question," a spokeswoman said.

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"Bird flu is not a food-borne illness and our customers understand this. Regional and local sourcing is at the heart of our offer and we are actively looking to source from Scotland in the run-up to opening two branches in Edinburgh in June, and in fact have already sourced an egg supplier in Scotland."

Tesco, Morrison's, Sainsbury's and Asda all denied they had cancelled any chicken supplies.

However a spokesman for Morrison's said: "We haven't reduced the order at all but we are monitoring the situation daily and will take everything into account."

Richard Clarke, fresh food editor at The Grocer magazine, said: "The supermarkets are saying at the moment they have not seen any drop off in sales, but it will be a key shopping period this weekend and by Monday we will have a better idea about how consumers have reacted to the news."

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