Chicken with paprika, anyone?

Hungary: Bird Flu Closing In

It was not that long ago when scientists considered it impossible for diseases to cross the species barrier. Lately, it has become increasingly apparent that this species barrier is about as porous as the outer borders of the EU. First with mad cow disease and now with bird flu, scientists are becoming ever more wary of the transmissible nature of diseases.

As bird flu nears the EU, member states are scrambling to put together contingency plans. The latest cases have been found in a national park in Croatia, a mere 30 km from the Hungarian border.

Despite warnings over the past three years that this scenario would eventually happen, it appears the EU was caught with its pants down. There exists no concrete plan of how to deal with a bird flu epidemic within Europe — both in terms of the havoc it would wreak on the poultry industry and in terms of human health if the virus ever does mutate and combine with the human form of the flu virus, thereby allowing for easy transmission among humans.

In Hungary, there appears to be no sense of panic — both at the political level and among the general public. The government has been rearing the public that bird flu poses no risk to humans since, in its own words, "it’s not transmissible to humans." What they fail to mention, however, is that concern over bird flu is not over the present state of the disease, but the future prospect of it becoming easily transmissible to humans.

Despite this sense of calm and detachment, Hungary has developed a vaccine that is supposedly effective against the virus. Preliminary tests have been positive, and a number of countries have expressed an interest in the vaccine, including the UK and the US. Yet the Hungarian government has maintained that it will not sell the vaccine — only when every Hungarian has had access to it. It remains to be seen, however, how well the government keeps its promises. Far too often, such lofty rhetoric is contradicted by the reality of capitalism.

While both the vaccine and government attempts to avoid panic over the encroachment of bird flu has done a lot to minimize concern, there are other reasons for this apparent sense of calm. Simply, Hungarians have become so saturated with news of a poisoned food supply, that many have become accustomed to it. It’s another story, of course, when cases of bird flu are eventually found in Hungary; then we can see this facade of calm crumble.

With the onset of globalisation and membership in the EU, Hungarians have been exposed to countless cases of poisoned food coming from outside its borders. The latest involves meat sent from Bavaria which was marked as fit for human consumption but which turned out to be actually scrap meat only good as dog food. Unfortunately, Hungarian packers had distributed much of the meat before the error was discovered.

The largest food scandal to have hit Hungary happened a year ago, when tainted paprika from Brazil, which was imported via Spain, was mixed with the Hungarian variety. Hungarian companies purposely hid the fact that the paprika it produced was mixed. The scandal caused an uproar, and the government spent significant time and resources to are the public as well as foreign markets that Hungarian paprika, which is usually ranked as the best in the world, was still an excellent product.

Unfortunately, with EU membership regulations and controls, as well as product labelling, have become more lax. Hungary used to have very stringent import controls; now, as a member of the EU, it relies on member states such as Spain to exercise these controls. Yet, once a product is imported through a member state, all member states accept it as if it has been properly inspected. Sadly, in the case of Hungary and other countries within Central and Eastern Europe, this often has not been the case.

The end result of this is that people have not become as shocked as they used to when a story of tainted food makes the headlines. A case in point is with mad cow disease. Recently, it was reported in Hungary that a person had died from a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. Most are familiar with the variant called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), better known as mad cow disease. Ironically, there was no further reporting on this case, even though approximately 10 people die of the disease each year in Hungary. Given the backdrop of the encroachment of bird flu, it was odd that more reporting on this case wasn’t forthcoming.

All this is not to say that Hungary is not worried at all about bird flu. The concern is there, but for the moment it seems to be contained in the background. However, with bird flu now so close to the country, this situation could change at any moment — and very suddenly. Even if the the disease doesn’t yet pose a threat to humans, the fact that poultry is a main part of the Hungarian diet will no doubt worry many, in much the same way as paprika, another staple of the Hungarian diet, was of concern a year ago when it became tainted. Indeed, it looks as though one of Hungary’s favorite dishes, chicken with paprika, soon won’t be the most sought after item on the menu.

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