Business starts Planning for Avian Flu effects

The most obvious commercial victim of bird flu - imagined or real - is the multi-million pound poultry industry, which includes egg producers and broiler breeders, as well as those bringing the poultry to market; ranging from supermarkets to restaurants.

For the moment, this sector's most immediate concern is that talk of a possible pandemic will spook consumers.

"This is not a food safety issue," insists National Farmers' Union president Tim Bennett. "I am concerned that consumers are not getting a clear message that poultry is safe to eat."

Yet, early signs of a bird flu impact on companies are already appearing.

Two months ago, when the British Veterinary Association said it was "inevitable" that wild birds would eventually carry bird flu to Britain, there was a "blip in sales" of poultry, Mr Bennett observes.

On Thursday this week, Northern Foods' finance director Jez Maiden warned that chicken pies and ready meals are about to become dearer, since the "uncertainties over avian flu... has a tendency to push up the price of chicken we buy in the UK".

And a few weeks ago, Dutch authorities ordered free range chickens be moved indoors.

There are also concerns that Europe's rural economy could be hit beyond any suffering endured by the poultry sector.

The bird trade is not limited to the poultry industry - Europe is also the world's largest market for the legal trade in wild birds, including hunting falcons and hawks.

This sector should expect tighter controls going forward, given the likelihood that wild birds carry the virus.

In parts of Russia, bans on bird shoots have been introduced and concerns about the flu spreading from wild birds could spark calls for similar measures elsewhere in Europe.

Moreover, as happened during the UK's foot and mouth outbreak in 2001, tourists could grow wary about visiting rural areas or even entire countries where the virus has been detected - such as Turkey, where bird flu was detected in turkeys on Thursday.

"Turkey is surprisingly close. It is where many of us will take our holidays," Peter Barton, an East Sussex free range chicken farmer concerned about the virus spreading to his birds, tells BBC News.

Turkey is already worried about the health of its lucrative tourism industry, which is growing at more than 10% a year and forecasts predict it will bring in more than $20bn in foreign currency earnings by 2007.

Agriculture minister Mehdi Eder - painfully aware of how fickle tourists respond instantly to health concerns, whether real or imaginary - has urged the media to report the problem in a responsible manner.

Indeed, it appears bird flu fears have had no significant impact on the tourism industry. Detached investors are not deserting the sector, and neither are consumers.

Take Germany, where travellers tend to be very quick to respond to perceived threats - Europe's second largest travel operator Thomas Cook predicts holiday sales growth in Germany to dip this winter to between 2% and 4%, but attributes the weakness to high oil prices and weak consumer confidence, not to concerns about avian flu.

Business travellers are also still out there, though here the picture is gradually becoming more nuanced.

Some firms have started supplying staff travelling to Asia and other affected areas with anti-viral drugs that are effective against the H5N1 avian flu strain causing concern at the moment, and several corporations are preparing plans for how and when travel by staff members should be limited.

A rapidly growing number of multinational corporations - including global banks such as Deutsche Bank, HSBC and UBS - are also hammering out detailed contingency plan, including repatriation routines for their workers should the virus mutate into a form where it poses a serious threat to human health.

Some global operators are also working out ways to serve both customer and internal requirements electronically, using the internet and call centres to maintain business should customers and staff cut back on their travel.

The pharmaceutical group Roche is among the global giants that have contingency plans in place.

"We need to make sure we can maintain our business, so we have our own pandemic plan within Roche," spokeswoman Susie Hackett tells BBC News.

Ms Hackett declines to elaborate on the plan's details, but Roche's efforts are believed to include supplies of its Tamiflu anti-viral drug for members of staff, some of whom would be considered "essential workers" should a pandemic occur.

Other companies eager to stockpile either Roche's Tamiflu drug or GlaxoSmitkline's equivalent Relenza, are finding it difficult to do so since there is a worldwide shortage of the drug.

"Several companies have approached us," says Ms Hackett.

But government requirements are dealt with first to make sure the public at large is looked after.

"We are managing our stock levels very carefully and there is a waiting list among companies," says Ms Hackett.

Roche has scaled up its production of Tamiflu significantly in recent months, and this should lead to an eightfold increase in output by next summer when compared with 2004, says Ms Hackett.

Depending on the severity of the annual ordinary flu season, some stock might be released to private companies early next year, she says.

Companies insist their preparations are nothing out of the ordinary, and that they are getting ready 'just-in-case', just as they would prepare contingency plans for natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

And primary care expert Dr Nigel Higgins is among those in the medical profession who agrees that whereas "we do not need to panic, we need to be prepared".