Lessons must be learned from this year’s bird flu outbreak to avoid shortages next year, Copas Turkeys has warned.
The Berkshire-based supplier managed to avoid the impact of this year’s worst-ever outbreak by slaughtering early, said Tom Copas, who runs the business started by his father in the 1950s.
It could now guarantee supply for the crucial festive period, but the business had also suffered a jump of at least 15% in production costs, he said – due to the raft of additional measures introduced to protect its 60,000-strong flock.
The business expects to face a large bill – potentially in six figures – due to its efforts to guarantee supply.
Copas supplies turkeys directly to consumers through its website, plus at the farmgate and through butchers’ shops and independents, while it also processes birds on behalf of Gressingham Foods and for export.
An outbreak would render the business inoperable for up to two years due to biosecurity rules, Copas warned, meaning “the risks were too high” not to act early.
And if no effective vaccine was forthcoming, the entire sector may need to rethink how it produced turkeys in future, he stressed.
“What we have seen is there is a timeframe of risk, linked to migrating birds, so if you start earlier, that risk is reduced,” he added, while suggesting more producers would need to do the same, before freezing or deep-chilling birds and then selling as fresh – something the FSA has permitted on exceptional grounds this year.
The sector would also need to “have a conversation around stocking densities”, given how virulent bird flu was, he said. And considering breeder numbers were hit hard this year, this could also affect bird supplies in 2023.
“There will be a knock-on effect for next year. For now, we are just dealing with this Christmas, but there will be a lot of questions to answer after that,” Copas suggested.
“It’s costing more for labour on-farm [due to the fact flocks had to be split up and staff were kept in separate groups to reduce contamination risks,” he pointed out.
“The cost of materials, straw for bedding, fuel and energy costs are also higher,” he added, particularly due to the need to deep chill the birds after early slaughter.
“We expect that will add up to £8 (or up to 15%) onto the cost of producing a bird, so we will take a significant hit,” Copas suggested.
“We feel we were on the front foot and are very pleased we managed to guarantee turkeys for Christmas,” he added. But some producers “won’t be back”, he pointed out, while saying “something needs to be done” to tackle the long term impacts of what was now becoming an endemic threat to the UK’s poultry sector.