By Gus Trompiz
PARIS (Reuters) - The French government has cut its assessment of the risk of bird flu in the country to the lowest level after stemming a disease that had swept through the southwestern duck-breeding region for the second winter in a row.
France, which has the largest poultry flock in Europe, has been among countries most severely hit by the highly pathogenic H5N8 type of bird flu that has spread in Europe, the Middle East and Africa since late last year.
The H5N8 epidemic, like outbreaks of different strains of bird flu a year earlier, has disrupted the French foie gras industry, which is concentrated in the southwest and which relies on duck and goose farms to make the liver pate speciality.
The government is scaling back the risk of highly pathogenic bird flu to "negligible", it announced in France's Official Journal on Friday. Last month, it had reduced its risk assessment to moderate from high.
The progressive lowering of the alert level reflects the fact that no new cases of the H5N8 virus have been confirmed since late March, a farm ministry spokesman said.
All measures to confine poultry indoors would now be lifted, he said.
H5N8 detected in France is not transmissible through food and has never been found in humans. It is different to the H7N9 strain that has killed more than 200 people in China since late last year.
France recorded 485 outbreaks of H5N8 and slaughtered some 4 million poultry because of the virus, mainly in the southwest.
In addition to mass culling of ducks and other poultry birds in outbreak areas, the government ordered a halt to duck-rearing in part of the southwest to stamp out the disease.
Duck farmers are due to be able to resume production from the end of May but the output stoppage is expected to cut supply and push up foie gras prices again this year.
The government, which has offered compensation for farmers over the loss of poultry flocks, is pushing for an overhaul of the sector, in which frequent transport of poultry between sites has been blamed for contributing to the spread of bird flu.
(Reporting by Gus Trompiz; editing by Adrian Croft and Mark Trevelyan)