Mon, Nov 10, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Hong Kong overhauls poultry system


Chickens are crammed into tiny cages at a Hong Kong poultry farm.


Kwan Wing-kin and a partner figured they had it made after spending over HK$500,000 (US$64,000) in the last three years to breed tastier chickens in Hong Kong, where fresh poultry is a staple part of the diet.

To help prevent the spread of bird flu, which has jumped the species barrier and killed seven people in Hong Kong since 1997, they installed safer drinking systems, fenced up the farm to keep out other birds and vaccinated their entire flock.

But their investment may go down the drain if the government goes ahead with a controversial plan to ban poultry farms or the age-old practice of selling live chickens in markets in a bid to prevent a return of the flu virus.

"If they impose central slaughtering, we expect the whole industry to become extinct and many people who sell live chickens will lose their jobs," Kwan said.

Pressure has mounted on the China-backed government to overhaul the poultry distribution system since the deadly SARS virus struck Hong Kong earlier this year. It will hold public consultations by year-end and a decision is expected next year.

Health experts have warned that SARS and the bird flu virus H5N1 could re-emerge this winter, traditionally the peak season for human influenza. Scientists fear the bugs could mix with human flu and produce even deadlier and more infectious strains.

Both SARS and the bird flu have cast the spotlight on Chinese culinary culture and eating habits, and whether they can be adapted to modern health standards.

Chinese have always preferred to buy chickens live at markets or even breed them in their own backyards, believing that freshly slaughtered chicken tastes better and is more nutritious.

In Hong Kong, the industry employs more than 50,000 people, and generates daily revenues of up to HK$6 million (US$770,000).

Hong Kong residents consume about 110,000 fresh chickens a day. Nearly one-third are supplied by local farms and the rest from China.

But if the birds are slaughtered in a central location, farmers like Kwan fear their produce would no longer command a premium compared to frozen or chilled chickens imported from elsewhere.

"If we have central slaughtering, it would mean that we must chill the chicken before it is passed on to retailers. But that will affect the meat. It will soften and lose its texture and taste very bad," said Kwan, who also represents the New Territories' Chicken Breeders Association.

"In Hong Kong, if something doesn't taste good, people just won't eat it."

But a lack of regulation and proper supervision have given rise to sometimes unhygienic ways of rearing the birds.

In markets, chickens are crammed into tiny cages, sometimes for days, before they are purchased by consumers and killed.

Since 1997, Hong Kong has instituted some measures to clean up the trade, including setting aside two days a month to disinfect markets and inspecting chickens before they are allowed into markets.

But some scientists have urged the government to go one step further and stop the sale of live chickens in markets.

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