The German poultry industry is feeling the pinch as consumers react to bird flu by buying fewer chicken, turkey and other poultry products. Restaurants are following suit, removing poultry from their menus.
Many Germans will be going without goose this holiday season
Poultry is doing a disappearing act from German kitchens and restaurants, just ahead of the prime poultry season. On Nov. 10, Germans celebrate the feast day of St. Martin -- normally with a feast of roast goose. Then there's Christmas dinner, which usually features some kind of poultry.
But already top restaurants are announcing a change in plans. The respected Hotel Traube in the Black Forest region has completely redone its holiday season menu, with not a chicken or turkey in sight.
German television chef Tim Mälzer told fans not to expect any poultry at his restaurant Das Weisse Haus for the time being. And one of the country's top gourmets, Harald Wohlfahrt, has substituted beef filet for roast chicken at his Hamburg-based dinner show "Palazzo" for "psychological reasons."
Poultry industry suffering
Experts say such images are ruining consumers' appetite for poultry
As the European Union becomes the next region to grapple with the threat of bird flu, the virus has already impacted Germany's eating habits and taken a toll on the nation's poultry industry.
The Association of German Chefs has emphasized that with proper preparation, poultry poses no risk of infection to consumers. But Klaus-Wilfried Meyer, head of the association's committee for nutrition and health, also said that, given consumer reaction, restaurants have no choice but to respond the way they have.
"I see it very realistically," Meyer said. "Consumers are unsure. They're not familiar enough with this issue, despite the thorough coverage in the media. If you're a chef and you cook poultry properly, there's no risk. But if customers don't believe it, they won't eat it, and that's wasted money."
Fears about consuming poultry products are also affecting European importers, exporters and suppliers. Dutch poultry exporters -- who, with a total of 600,000 tons per year are the EU's largest group of poultry exporters -- have reported a 20 percent decrease in turnover. A third of their exports end up on the German market. The European egg, poultry and game association (EPEGA), which mainly represents importers, has reported a 10 percent fall in sales.
Germany's Rewe Trading Group, one of Europe's leading food retailers, refrained from giving any concrete figures, but said it had noticed consumer reluctance to buy poultry because of a "slight" decline in turnover.
"The massive amount of media reporting (on bird flu) is responsible for this, not the actual situation," said Rewe press spokesperson Andreas Krämer. "The ministry for consumer protection and scientific institutes such as the Robert Koch Institute agree that the risk of consumers getting infected through poultry products is very low. But it's understandable that when customers hear and read so much about bird flu it ruins their appetite for poultry."
Chickens sit in their barn in Neu Wulmstorf near Hamburg
Germans consumers have grown used to food scandals in recent years. Meat producers saw sales plummet when scares such as mad cow disease or foot-and-mouth disease were at their peak -- and then recover again once the panic had subsided. Meyer said he expects the same behavior with the bird flu scare.
"Scandals come and go, and consumers always react like this," he said. "When this scandal dies out, poultry sales will go up again. We saw that with the recent scare about contaminated fish. Afterwards, people so wanted to eat it again that sales went up to even higher levels than before the scandal."
Meanwhile, experts are doing their best to reassure consumers that poultry imports from bird flu-infected countries have been banned and that the basic hygiene rules for cooking poultry haven't changed.
"Any virus will be killed in the cooking process," said Susanne Glasmacher of the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin. "And if only due to the risk of salmonella poisoning, poultry should only be eaten if it's cooked through."
As for chef Klaus-Wilfried Meyer, he intends to go on living -- and eating -- as normal. And that includes tucking into a meal of roast goose on St. Martin's Day.
"Nothing will stop me from that," he said. "I've been waiting for too long for a nice slice of goosemeat!"