Bird Flu Strikes at French Identity, Cuisine
for National Geographic News
|March 2, 2006|
In France the Coq Gaulois, or Gallic Rooster, is a proud national symbol, featured on everything from government seals and church steeples to Paris fashion and the jerseys of the national soccer team.
As such the announcement last week that bird flu had infiltrated a French poultry farm has sparked concern not just about human health, but the health of a nation's cultural identity.
Veterinarians revealed that nearly all of the 11,000 birds at a turkey farm in the Ain region of southeastern France were infected with avian influenza. Hundreds had died and the surviving birds were slaughtered.
The discovery was the first incidence of bird flu at a commercial poultry farm in the European Union.
France is Europe's biggest producer and exporter of poultry, with some 200,000 farms raising 900 million birds a year. The industry generated the equivalent of 3.6 billion U.S. dollars in 2004more than 20 percent of total E.U. production.
So far 43 countries so far have blocked French poultry imports, including Japan, South Korea, Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Russia.
Due to flu fears, there was a reported 30 percent fall in French poultry sales even before the farm outbreak was announced.
Jacques Chirac, the French president, made a point of eating chicken from the affected region at an annual farming fair in Paris last weekend.
He told accompanying media that the H5N1 strain is destroyed by cooking, "so there is absolutely no danger." He said concern among consumers over French poultry and eggs is "totally unjustified."
"We have to avoid a Hitchcock psychosis," Pierre Rolland, mayor of the poultry-producing town of Loué, told the New York Timeslikely refering to the film director's suspense classic The Birds.
The term Gallic Rooster comes from the Latin gallus, which means "Gaul" as well as "rooster."
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 pota chicken in his potevery 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 producersmostly family-run operations," she said.
"Add to that the butchers, farmers markets, small restaurants, and home cooks who draw from the poultry farmsboth small and largeand 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."
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 diseasethey 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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