These are dark days for poultry eaters in France, land of foie gras, coq au vin, and other gastronomic delights. Sales of chickens and other fowl began tumbling well before Europe's first bird flu was detected in French turkeys last month. From Paris, Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA about the impact of bird flu in France, Europe's largest poultry producer and exporter.

The poultry for sale at one northern Paris supermarket is not much to speak of: just four smoked chickens and no fresh meat in sight. Claudia Chetrit, ringing up a few customers at the family-run store, says there's no point in ordering more.

Chetrit says every time she orders poultry from a wholesaler, it just sits on the shelf. People just aren't eating chicken any more, she says. They watch television, they read the newspapers, and they're afraid.

What French shoppers are afraid of is contracting the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu, even though experts say its safe to eat cooked poultry. Nonetheless, consumption of chicken and other fowl is plummeting, as new cases of bird flu are detected among wild birds in France and elsewhere in Europe. French fears only grew after the first cases of the H5N1 strain were found in a turkey farm in east-central France.

Jean-Luc Angot, deputy director general for the World Organization for Animal Health in Paris, notes this is not the first time panic has spread among European meat consumers. The same scenario occurred a few years ago, when the mad cow scare hit the region and beef consumption plummeted. Now, he says, Europeans are facing the same crisis when it comes to bird flu.

Several European countries, especially Poland, are now grappling with the deadly H5N1 strain. The virus has even infected several cats in Germany and Austria. But the economic impact is harshest in France. Besides a dive in domestic poultry consumption, more than 40 countries have imposed whole or partial bans on French exports of chicken, foie gras and other products. Experts tally the losses at about $48 million a month.

Cautious French diners, like store owner Chetrit, are steering clear of all poultry these days. "We need to take precautions," Chetrit says. "When authorities say there is no more bird flu around, we will start eating chicken again."

Chetrit's anxieties are echoed across France. At least one French mayor has taken chicken off school lunch menus. Local fire stations and veterinary clinics are deluged with calls from worried citizens who have spotted dead birds or want to know how to safely cook poultry. And attendance at France's annual agricultural fair in Paris was down drastically this year, partly because of fears of bird flu, although the only birds on display were plastic ones.

Noel Appert, head of the poultry farmer's association in France's northern Marne region, says bird flu took many in the industry by surprise. Even in September, Alpert says, slaughterhouses couldn't meet consumers' demand for fresh chicken. Then, when Europe's first cases of bird flu were reported in October, local chicken consumption plummeted.

But a new campaign is underway to win back French hearts and stomachs. In the northern Champagne region, Alpert says farmers are going to supermarkets to tell worried consumers that poultry is safe to eat. The French government has also earmarked several million dollars to launch a national "buy poultry" advertising campaign, and French politicians are gobbling up dozens of chicken dinners in public appearances.

Eating poultry is even being promoted as a religious duty. In southwestern France, Bishop Philippe Breton is urging his Roman Catholic parishioners to keep cooking birds during Lent. The bishop's spokesman, Jean-Francois Alix, says the message is to support poultry farmers. Many are on the verge of losing their businesses. Their distress is as much moral as financial.

Not everybody is worried about eating poultry. At a butcher's shop in northern Paris, worker Fernanda Bletry says demand for her chickens - both fresh and roasted - is booming. "When they first started talking about bird flu, we were afraid," Bletry says. "But we are selling as many chickens as we did before. You should come here on Sundays. The place is packed."

Brigitte Saillard, waiting in line to be served, says she is unfazed by bird flu. "Not worried at all. If you buy chicken at a good butcher's, there is absolutely no problem," she says. "Of course, if you buy it at a tiny little place, or not very clean maybe.... But here in France, there's very good meat, so it's really not a problem."

Saillard believes French consumers should remain cautious, but there is no reason for them to panic.