March 28, 2018 / 6:28 PM / a year ago

Higher prices help foie gras farmers overcome bird flu crises

PARIS (Reuters) - Higher foie gras prices and large public subsidies have allowed farmers to overcome two consecutive bird flu crises that ravaged duck flocks in southwest France, but output will take time to recover, producers said on Wednesday.

France, which has one of the largest poultry flocks in the European Union, had to cull millions of ducks and imposed a full halt in production at farms last year and the previous one due to severe bird flu outbreaks.

It has been spared so far this year, and the season during which farms are most at risk of being contaminated by migrating wild birds is soon coming to an end.

Producers of foie gras, a duck or goose liver pate, have been particularly hit by the virus as their rearing methods - which involve keeping birds outside and then moving them to force-feeding and slaughtering buildings - raise the risk of the virus spreading.

Foie gras is considered a gourmet food in Western and Asian cuisine, but the practice of force-feeding is condemned as cruel by animal activists.

“We met the challenge, we were on supermarkets shelves for year-end festivities. Volumes were smaller but with a 20 percent drop in output on the previous year it was to be expected and sales in value were good,” Michel Fruchet, chairman of French foie gras producers group Cifog, told reporters.

Foie gras sales fell 12.8 percent by volume in supermarkets in 2017, but rose 1 percent by value, Cifog said. Volumes had fallen 9.3 percent and sales value was down 1.9 percent in 2016.

The bird flu crises in 2016 and 2017 have forced French foie gras farmers to change production methods at costs the industry has passed in prices to customers.

Investments include new equipment such as cleaning tools and extra premises to confine birds when they are most at risk of contracting the virus.

“In a strained context when we were concerned that the price could deter consumers, it was not the case and we are reassured,” Cifog general secretary Marie-Pierre Pe said.

French duck farmers have received nearly 350 million euros ($432 million) in subsidies to help them cope with the bird flu crisis, with input from France and the European Union. About 3,500 farms benefited from the support overall, Cifog said.

The number of ducks produced in France fell to 23 million in 2017 from 29 million in 2016 and 37 million in 2015, Pe said.

Reporting by Sybille de La Hamaide; Editing by Mark Potter

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