Is Poland’s chicken boom behind its devastating bird flu outbreak?


“I’ve lost everything,” says Andrzej Lewandowski, an egg producer from the village of Brudnice in Zuromin county, about 100km north of Warsaw. Zuromin and the neighbouring county of Mlawa are the hub of Poland’s chicken industry.

“I had to kill 140,000 hens. I lost 500,000 eggs, 40 tonnes of feed and soon I’m going to give up 250 tonnes of cereals I was going to use to make feed,” says Lewandowski about measures to eliminate a bird flu outbreak on his farm.

Avian influenza has hit Poland hard since late last year. Carried by migrating birds, more than 330 highly pathogenic outbreaks have been recorded by the country’s veterinary officials. There were only 50 in 2019-20. About 13.5 million birds have died since the autumn of 2020, with most dying in 2021.

Avian influenza or “bird flu” occurs naturally throughout the wild bird population, but has been detected in humans too, with cases reported in China and Russia this year.

Poland’s largest ever outbreak comes after more than a decade and a half of growth that has seen the country become the EU’s biggest poultry producer, and a major exporter to countries including the UK.

Poland’s EU membership was a turning point for the industry. In 2004, the year Poland became a member state, its poultry exports were just 142,000 tonnes – against overall production of about 800,000 tonnes.

The value of poultry exports last year was 12.5bn zloty (GBP2.4bn), a drop of 8% from 2019, although in terms of actual volume, there was growth of 3% to 1.8m tonnes.

Disease specialists say the bird flu outbreak has hit Lewandowski’s region hard because of the high concentration of poultry farms.

“No biosecurity standards will work in this concentration of production. The virus can spread up to three kilometres from an outbreak. All it takes is a single farm where biosecurity wasn’t up to par,” says Prof Piotr Szeleszczuk at Warsaw University of Life Sciences.

Some local communities are fighting the rapid growth of the poultry industry.

Industrial-scale chicken farm in Zielun

After taking office in 2014, the mayor of Zuromin, Aneta Goliat, fought to push through local zoning plans to prevent poultry producers building more farms in the town and its county. After two years of legal battles, close to the entire commune is now covered by the plans.

“The stench is the worst. When it’s blowing from the farms, you have to wash your clothes after a few hours outside. You can’t go out to your garden to have a coffee, the smell is so bad,” says Goliat.

“These are not farmers, which is what they like to say about themselves. They’re industrialists that poison our lives here, wear out the roads and cause the value of property to fall,” she adds.

A local breeder agrees, although he says he cannot speak openly because “I’m one of them and I have to say what others say.”

“These farms are out of control. Is it our fault or the fault of the authorities who couldn’t put a stop to that?” he says.

Poland’s poultry producers say the industry is not out of control and that the bird flu epidemic is the result of a combination of exceptionally bad circumstances, such as much colder weather. April this year was the coldest on record in 24 years.

“Safety measures keep getting better each year, but there was simply very little the breeders could do in this year’s conditions. All those farms were here last year, weren’t they?” says Dariusz Goszczynski, director general of the Polish Poultry Council, an industry group.

“The high concentration of farms is an indication for keeping the biosecurity at the highest level, but it’s not as big a problem as the environmental organisations claim,” says Katarzyna Gawronska, director of the National Chamber of Poultry and Feed Producers.

For Lewandowski, the risk of the outbreak repeating next year is hard to think of. “I won’t start production again before August – if all goes well. We’re living off savings now and if this happens again next year, we’re done,” he says.

As well as bird flu, the poultry industry has also had to contend with salmonella outbreaks linked to Polish poultry meat. Two strains of Salmonella enteritidis in frozen, raw, breaded chicken products from Poland have caused almost 500 illnesses since January 2020 and at least one death in the UK.

Day-old chicks are prepared for transport at a hatchery in Skarzynek

Not everyone in the poultry industry is now so confident in the relentless drive to build more farms.

“Most land in Poland isn’t covered by zoning plans and if an investor wants to build a poultry farm, local authorities can’t do much but greenlight that. As you can see now, it’s risky for the producers and for the economy,” says Andrzej Danielak of the Polish Association of Poultry Breeders and Producers, a lobby group of smaller poultry farmers.

The bird flu outbreak also affected areas far from the outbreaks. In May, protests broke out at sites where thousands of dead birds were to be buried, as incinerators were unable to handle the number of slaughtered animals.

Andrzej Oldakowski lives in Zawady Dworskie, a village 100km east from Zuromin where the veterinary authorities attempted to bury slaughtered poultry in April. He says: “We couldn’t let this happen and we blocked the trucks with the dead birds – a few thousand tonnes of poultry carrion that we were afraid would contaminate our water, soil and air. We have succeeded now, but what if there’s an outbreak next year?”

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