Tue, Oct 03, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Slaughtering tradition

Sunday marked the first day of new regulations introduced by the government to halt the slaughter of poultry in wet markets around the nation designed to help prevent an outbreak of avian flu. Vendors who flout the new rules could be liable for a NT$500,000 fine.

But a walk around a local market within the last two days would have revealed that chicken vendors were taking little notice, busily slaughtering birds as if nothing had changed. Whether this was the result of some sort of grace period between market store owners and the authorities is unknown, but it could indicate that enforcement of the new regulations will be as haphazard as for numerous other laws in Taiwan.

The government's theory is that a new business model, where birds are slaughtered, processed and packed in state-of-the-art slaughterhouses, as opposed to Taiwan's notoriously dirty and crowded wet markets, will reduce the chances of any outbreaks of the deadly disease, which has killed dozens of people in several Asian countries.

But will the location where birds are slaughtered really have any effect? After all, most cases of bird flu in humans have occurred in people who handle, come in close contact with, or kill live animals, and not people who cook and eat the meat. Therefore taking the birds away from the market will have a negligible effect, as it will only shift any risk from vendors to slaughterhouse workers. It does little to tackle the root causes of the disease, whatever they may be.

The new rules will no doubt also force the slaughter of poultry into the hands of big business, as it is unlikely many small-time chicken vendors can afford to set up their own high-tech slaughterhouses. Whether the business lobby had anything to do with the government's decision is unclear, but it is they who will directly benefit from the new regulations when in actual fact it is their behavior and the inhumane way they treat animals that in all likelihood led to the current threat that bird flu poses.

While wild birds seem to have been given most of the blame for the spread of avian flu, many credible scientific and environmental organizations have begun to question the role agribusiness and its intensive farming methods have played.

In May, an editorial in The Lancet observed that avian flu had coexisted with wild birds, traditional methods of farming and slaughter for many generations without the threat of a global pandemic. It suggested that small, low-density backyard flocks provide birds with a good range of genetic diversity to help fight infection, in stark contrast to the highly mechanized factory farms where thousands of birds are cooped up in small cages, stand in their own feces and are fed on a combination of growth hormones, antibiotics and food coloring, the perfect environment for the mutation of a killer virus such as H5N1.

Give the consumer a choice between a free-range chicken and a featherless, deformed factory-farmed "broiler" and it is pretty obvious which bird most people would choose.

Yet, by following "expert" international opinion on this issue and mimicking the ways of agribusiness in other countries, the government is making it more difficult for chicken vendors to make a living and people to have a say in the kind of food they want to eat.

The new rules, if they are followed, will not help prevent bird flu, but they will succeed in divorcing the nation's shoppers still further from the reality of where their food comes from and killing off yet another traditional way of life.

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