Wednesday, July 15, 2009



Much has been said lately about the language and behaviour of erstwhile celebrity chef, Gordon Ramsay and his cocksure posturing, but when all is said and done, Ramsay really has little to crow about in the grand scheme of things; he may be a dab hand in the kitchen, but does one of his creations have even the smallest chance of saving humankind from a potentially deadly virus?

I turn therefore to 15,000 real cocks in Victoria, Australia, who do have that weight of the world upon their… err.. wings.

An Australian egg producer, Kinross Farm, in Kinglake, 40 kilometres from metropolitan Melbourne, is the primary supplier of the fertilised eggs needed in the laboratories of CSL Ltd ( to culture the antigen to H1N1, Swine Influenza. Under the steady guidance of owner and Managing Director, Philip Szepe, poultry and eggs are laid, fed and nurtured under specific conditions and audited by the TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration -Australia) on a regular basis.

Mr Szepe and his staff care for over 163,000 of these pampered chickens and 15,000 roosters, to produce, in a normal year, 28 million eggs for CSL. That is an incredible 800,000 eggs per week. With the advent of the Swine Flu, and the fact that CSL needs to produce enormous amounts of vaccine, this will mean that rather than resting, or retiring these prime layers and their feathered Lotharios for a chunk of this breeding season, Kinross Farm will need to encourage their poultry to… errr…. go forth and multiply as never before, to produce at least 40,000 million eggs this year if demand is to be met globally for the H1N1 vaccine.

Cue Barry White music and mood lighting please. In order to encourage the roosters and chickens to do what comes naturally, the birds range free in enormous climate controlled barns and are fed a specially heated and decontaminated organic food which gives them plenty of ‘get up and go, go, go’ - a sort of dietary Viagra for our feathered friends. Each rooster develops his own favourites – in effect, a sort of harem of a dozen or so mates, who in turn, lay six eggs a week. The eggs are then fumigated, incubated, tested for fertility/embryonic development and then trucked down the mountain daily to CSL in Parkville, Victoria, just outside Melbourne's Central Business district, in specially built, computer and temperature controlled semi-trailers.

However, in the words of Kinross Farm General Manager, David Eastwood, a genial man who hails from Britain’s North country, “the vaccine labs might be up the creek without a paddle, we might all be up the creek without a paddle if we couldn’t produce the eggs needed for the flu vaccines, if the fire had of got us”. The farm narrowly averted disaster in the Black Saturday bushfire blazes (7th February, 2009)

with flames licking the rear doors of the barns and fires in the evaporative cooling towers. As the forest blazed on the four sides of the valley in which the facility nestles just minutes from the centre of Kinglake township, Philip Szepe, along with five of his staff, fought back the flames and ember attacks for over 10 hours in order to save the barns and business housing the scores of poultry -each worth approximately AUD$25 at the height of their reproductive strengths. (Kinross runs a further 80,000 chickens at Euroa and 30,000 at Pheasant Creek – but the Kinglake barns are the primary producers of the eggs needed by CSL). Philip says that he and the men were fighting for their lives as much as they were fighting for the livelihood of the mountain, as he employs sixty staff at the Kinglake farm and his business and the incomes earned by his employees have a significant ‘knock on’ effect within the devastated district. The day after the fire, 8th February, one determined group of staff insisted on clearing the exit road from Kinross Farm to the outside world and drove the company semi-trailer down the mountain to fulfil commitments to the CSL contract.

In the first few days following Black Saturday, Philip Szepe and David Eastwood were determined to keep the farm producing and ran on emergency generators, sleeping in shifts at the farm and waking to refuel and check the delicate computerised systems and climate controls necessary to produce the eggs from which the life saving vaccines are manufactured. They did this to give other staff members time to regroup emotionally and take stock of the incinerated devastation around them. Ten Kinross employees lost their homes during the blazes, and all lost friends in the fires. Dave Eastwood says, “the guys gave everything they had to fight the fires…there’s not a job here that people wouldn’t do, management included, we all muck in and it’s the best place to work because we all pull together”.

Some of Kinross’s employees have been with the organisation for 20 years, Philip Szepe went to school with some of his workers, they have shared lives, milestones and the growth of a business started in 1965 by Philip’s father, an Hungarian immigrant. It’s this bond with his community that made Szepe so determined to make his business a haven of normalcy amidst a charred landscape and a base from which he can support his employees and their families.

Suffice to say, the little egg farm that emerged from the Black Saturday fires unscathed, will have some very productive, cosseted hens and some very tired roosters for the foreseeable future. Perhaps then, Mr Ramsay should stick to his omelettes and let the real cocks do the crowing.

Are you worried about Swine Flu mutating, or do you think it's all way over the top in terms of media coverage? I'd be really interested to know your thoughts - just post a comment below.

(Since the first cases of H1N1 (Swine) Flu emerged in Mexico several weeks ago, CSL Ltd, has assiduously collected virus samples via WHO, to develop ‘seed’ viruses from which a vaccine can be developed in their laboratories in Parkville, Victoria. The development of a potential vaccine is dependent on the cultures being grown in fertile hen eggs in staggering quantities.
At the time of publishing, Dr Rachel David of CSL confirmed that the Australian Federal Government had ordered 10 million doses of the new vaccine when it rolls off production line, in August, and the US Health Department has signed an order for 48 million doses of the influenza antigen vaccine = AUD $230 million. According to (WHO) Dr Ian Barr of the Collaborating Centre for Influenza in Melbourne, CSL are further down the track than other facilities globally, and it has now been confirmed that clinical trials of CSL’s vaccine, Novel H1N1, will begin in mid-July (Said to be Wednesday, 22 July, 2009) at Royal Adelaide Hospital in South Australia.

In Australian dollar terms, one dose of normal flu vaccine with defence against three strains, leaves CSL during the flu season at a wholesale cost of AUD $10 per dose. Dr David maintains that she has not yet fully established the unit cost of the Novel H1N1 antigen for Australia although the USA’s order for AUD $230 million = 40 to 48 million doses.)