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Bird flu fails to stop Easter egg enthusiasm

Coloured eggs are still popular, despite the bird flu threat

(Keystone)

The Swiss are busily decorating Easter eggs for holiday festivities, bucking expectations that the arrival of avian flu might deter people from the ancient ritual.

Whereas avian flu ushered in a notable drop in poultry sales, the popularity of the traditional symbol of Easter seems to be unchanged.

This is the first time in Switzerland that Easter has been overshadowed by a situation like avian flu says Aviforum, the Swiss poultry farmers umbrella association.

The virus was first confirmed in the country in February, with 32 cases among wild birds to date. Four cases of the deadly variant H5N1 have been reported.

There have been as yet no cases among domestic fowl. But the authorities have imposed a ban on keeping poultry outdoors due to the risk of infection by migrating birds.

"This won't change before Easter," Aviforum's Ruedi Zweifel told swissinfo.

This means that all eggs are being laid indoors, when previously they were largely free-range and organic.

But none of this has changed Swiss attitudes toward the beloved egg.

Ancient custom

Various theories exist about the custom of exchanging eggs at Easter.

An ancient symbol of fertility and new life, gifts of painted eggs were reportedly given by Egyptians and Persians 5,000 years ago.

In Europe, economic factors were instrumental in establishing the custom. Up to the French Revolution, eggs and produce could be given to the lord of the manor as payment.

Eating eggs also had a celebratory dimension. Although hens lay more eggs in spring, during Lent, the 40-day fasting period before Easter, the eating of animal egg whites was prohibited.

The lifting of the ban at Easter meant eggs could once again be enjoyed.

However, during the Reformation, the custom of exchanging Easter eggs started to change. Where once landlords, priests and teachers had received eggs in payment, now godchildren, friends and loved ones were presented with gifts of eggs to express bonds of affection.

These eggs were often coloured or brightly painted. Gradually, children began hiding eggs.

Healthy eggs

The Swiss authorities are keen to stress that eggs remain safe, despite the threat of bird flu.

Egg whites and yolks are not infectious, as the virus does not settle in the ovaries of the fowl.

But an infection of the shell is theoretically possible, through faeces, say the canton of Aarau's veterinary authorities.

As Easter eggs are boiled for at least seven minutes and heat kills the virus, there is no danger of eating an infected egg, they add.

Message

The message seems to be getting through to consumers.

"In contrast to poultry, where we sense that consumers clearly have reservations, there is no sign of a similar reluctance towards purchasing eggs," said Zweifel.

Alois Mettler of Gallosuisse, the Association of Swiss Egg Producers, agrees.

"We don't have notices about avian flu on eggs, because the danger that eggs might contain the virus is exceedingly small," said Mettler.

"The affected hen would die before having the chance to lay an egg," he added.

Easter eggs are selling briskly, according to Urs-Peter Naef of the supermarket chain Migros.

"In comparison with last year there is no indication that consumers are holding back, " said Naef. "We're also surprised!"

swissinfo, Urs Maurer

In brief

The avian flu virus cannot infect the egg yolk and white as it does not settle in the ovaries of poultry.

An infection of the eggshell is theoretically possible, through faeces.

Cooking eggs in boiling water destroys the virus. The higher the temperature, the less the chance the virus will survive on the eggshell.

Eggs with dirty shells should be thoroughly washed before being cracked.

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