Poultry farmers in the depths of despair

Greece’s poultry farmers knew they would be in for a difficult time when the bird flu scare began, but they never expected that what they are calling a «media frenzy» would go as far as it has over the past couple of months. One poultry farmer said he knows it will end at some point but not before an entire sector has been all but ruined. Many blame the media for what they say is a misinformation campaign. «You lot have upset everyone; now you try and calm everyone down» said residents of the village of Nea Artaki, on the island of Evia, to Kathimerini reporters. Poultry farms are closing until further notice, slaughtered chickens are piling up in refrigerated warehouses, and working hours at abattoirs have been reduced by half. Farms that once housed 15,000-25,000 chickens have been empty for the past two to three months. «We had 4,000 people living here 25 years ago,» said Panayiotis Anastassiadis, the mayor of Nea Artaki. «The poultry industry became the main economic activity and raised the population to 17,000. Now people are leaving. Misinformation has spread fear and terror. Greeks won’t touch chicken anymore.» The panic began in mid-January, when bird flu struck in Turkey. «The false alarm on the island of Oinouses led to a 60-75 percent drop in sales over the last three months of 2005,» said Constantinos Papakanterakis, general director of the Agrozoi company. «Things improved around Christmas time, but our hopes quickly faded. The second scare was worse than the first. In our small market, which focuses mainly on butchers and grill restaurants, sales have fallen by more than 75 percent. We have temporarily stopped working with some poultry breeders and are turning to smaller breeders so as to plan better. However, I am afraid that the effects of the current situation will become more serious than what many people believe. Young people are becoming consumers with a built-in fear. This whole affair with chickens has touched a nerve.» Fortress coops Our car is sprayed as we enter a poultry farm in Nea Artaki. We are given overalls to wear. «Protection measures are very strict,» said Apostolos Ziogas, head of the Panhellenic Poultry Breeders’ Association. «All windows have been closed off with very fine wire mesh, disinfection is used in all phases of production, and blood samples are taken before slaughter. There is no way that a sick chicken could ever reach the stores. Even if there was a case, it would be detected long before it reached the abattoir because of the strict procedures and many stages of inspection.» In France, where a case of bird flu was in fact found in a poultry farm, consumption is only down by about 5 percent. Yet the Greek poultry industry, one of the strongest primary production sectors that fully covers the country’s domestic requirements and provides employment for 15,000 people, is in danger. «Government officials have pulled the rug out from under us and walked off,» said Thanos Angelakis, CEO of Angelakis Chickens. «People were not properly informed by the authorities. On the other hand, we didn’t expect such immaturity on the part of the public. At present we are processing 50 percent fewer chickens than before. We have reduced our slaughtering days from six to three per week. Whatever we can’t sell, we prefer to freeze,» he said. Angelakis compares the situation to a natural disaster. «The worst of it is that we are not dealing with any actual problem but with people’s impressions,» he said. On Sunday, the town of Halkida will be holding a poultry festival to try and regain consumers’ trust, but they have ruled out an advertising campaign for the moment. «It would be pointless,» said Angelakis. «When four hours a day are spent on repeating a news item that spreads terror, who will watch a 20-30 second spot by someone trying to prove the obvious?» The luckier ones have already diversified into other farming activities. Not so Dimitris Heimonas, whose coops have been empty for two months. The firm he supplies explained that since sales were down, they would not be needing any more chickens until further notice. Strict precautions «When the Oinouses scare broke, I wasn’t worried because I take very strict precautions here. I thought the fuss would die down and people would be sensible, because the problem is with household coops,» he said. Heimonas and other poultry farmers have found that many of their fellow villagers refuse to eat chicken, influenced by the «panic spread by all the television stations, without exception.» Lefteris Georgiou, a poultry farmer since 1960, stopped raising chickens at the end of October. His chickens were slaughtered and frozen. According to estimates, about 50,000 tons of chicken have been frozen. The 12-million-euro compensation granted as assistance in fodder is barely a sugar coating for the bitter pill. «Our children don’t even want to go near the coops,» said Yiannis Stoupas. «I stopped raising chickens about a month and a half ago, but I’ve still got to cover my operating costs.» A few months ago, Costas Keramidas installed a special spraying system at the entrance to his farm where he raises up to 45,000 chickens. «When we sell the chickens, we wash out the coops. Over a period of a week, the coop is disinfected in a number of different ways. Chickens are like little children. You have to be on top of them all the time,» he said. Not only the coops but all the equipment, watering and feeding implements are also disinfected. «Veterinarians carry out inspections daily and the birds only leave for slaughter on approval by the state veterinarian. If a chicken gets sick, it usually dies within a few hours. But no one listens to us.» (1) This article first appeared in the March 19 issue of K, Kathimerini’s color supplement. Photos by Kanaris Tsinganos.