Bird Flu Strikes at French Identity, Cuisine

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Gaul was the Roman name for the region of western Europe encompassing modern-day France and Belgium as well as pieces of Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands.

In the late 1700s leaders of the French Revolution adopted the rooster as the national symbol.

Napolean later tried to switch the bird for an eagle, saying, "the rooster has no strength." But he failed to knock the feathered icon off its perch.

The bird went on to adorn the flag and uniform of the French National Guard, the 20-franc gold coin, and the gates of the Elysée Palace, the president's official residence.

Likewise, the chicken has long been dear to the hearts and stomachs of the French.

"France's Henry IV knew the significance of chicken in his kingdom," writes Mary Ellen Evans in The One-Dish Chicken Cookbook.

"When bartering with God for a longer life, he vowed that each peasant would find une poule dans son pot—a chicken in his pot—every Sunday."

Evans is an expert in French cuisine who divides her time between Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a small home in Provence. She told National Geographic News, "There are as many French chicken recipes as there are French cooks.

"The country has taken this humble bird and made it something extraordinary."

But the arrival of the H5N1 strain threatens a serious blow to the French chicken and the thousands of farmers whose livelihoods depend on it.

Evans specifically warns of the potential impact of bird flu on rural communities.

"France is studded with small farms and producers—mostly family-run operations," she said.

"Add to that the butchers, farmers markets, small restaurants, and home cooks who draw from the poultry farms—both small and large—and the implications could be enormous."

"I can't imagine France without its poultry. It's rather like the baguette, an intrinsic part of the national diet," she added.

Foie gras, made from the livers of ducks and geese, is another product that could suffer, with Japan already banning imports due to bird flu fears.

French lawmakers recently voted to grant foie gras (translated as "fatty liver") special protection as part of the "cultural and gastronomic heritage of France."

Global Pandemic

H5N1 bird flu, first identified in China, has so far claimed at least 92 lives, mainly in Southeast Asia.

People are thought to have caught the disease from live birds. But if the virus acquires the ability to transfer between humans, it could spark a global pandemic, according to the World Health Organization

Experts say migratory birds are likely responsible for the westward spread of the virus. Other European countries that have reported the virus in wild birds include Austria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Sweden, and Switzerland.

Officials have begun vaccinating free-range birds in southwest France, a region deemed at high risk of contracting the virus from migrating birds.

However, experts warn that vaccinated European poultry could still contract and spread the disease—they just won't die of it themselves.

Meanwhile French rugby fans have been told not to perform one of their sporting traditions when they arrive in Britain later this month for a game against Wales.

Supporters usually take a rooster with them and release the bird onto the playing field.

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