Thailand’s first reported case of the bird flu sweeping through parts of Asia stands to devastate the region’s largest poultry export industry.

Up to six million chickens have been culled in Thailand since last November, when the government said that an outbreak of what it described as "fowl cholera and bronchitis" had hit several central provinces.

In the face of fears of a link to the avian influenza that has hit Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, the government staunchly denied the kingdom had been affected by the virus.

But after it admitted Wednesday that three people suspected of having contracted the disease were undergoing tests, Thai senator and health expert Nirun Phitakwatchara said one of them had been confirmed as having the disease.

Nirun accused the government of a cover-up and urged it to act quickly to contain the outbreak of the chicken disease that has hit five provinces, which he said was certainly the dreaded H5N1 strain of avian influenza.

The first fallout of his announcement came just hours later when Japan, Thailand’s biggest customer for chicken products, said it had banned imports as a result.

"We suspended (imports) as of today," an official at the agriculture ministry’s safety supervision division said in Tokyo.

"We have not confirmed the infection but cannot rule it out either… We decided on the suspension protectively for the sake of food safety."

The announcement sent shockwaves around the industry which it said exported 540,000 tonnes of chicken last year, half of which or 270,000 tonnes went to Japan while the second biggest buyer, the European Union, took 166,000 tonnes.

Thailand’s poultry export juggernaut earned 1.2 billion dollars last year.

Prior to the revelation, Thailand’s chicken processers had increased measures to protect their industry.

"We’re all on very strict security measures in our breeding stocks, hatching and farms," said Fred Duncan, chairman of the Grampian Country Food Group (GCFG), one of Britain’s largest agri-food companies, which operates two slaughter houses in Thailand.

"There is a very tight security network around the farms, and the standards are always improving," he told AFP this week.

Meanwhile Thursday, mass exterminations in several small farms in the worst-hit region of central Thailand were continuing.

Checkpoints and disinfectant stations along roads leading to slaughter houses have been increased, and agriculture officials placed at production centres to monitor the industry.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra denied any cover-up and said it would take several days to confirm the status of the three people suspected of having been infected with bird flu.

Thaksin said he was not concerned about Thailand’s ability to tackle any bird flu outbreak but he conceded that negative publicity could be damaging.

If the outbreak is confirmed "we can definitely contain it, but what I am concerned about are the repercussions from misunderstandings in the media that will cause problems for sure," he told reporters.

Thai chicken industry spokespeople were unavailable for immediate comment Thursday during Chinese New Year celebrations.

/ Current Affairs