Sat, Dec 27, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Bird flu gives South Koreans a case of `chicken flesh'


In South Korea, geese are relatively rare, and when something gives people goose bumps, they say, "It gives me chicken flesh."

These days, chickens are doing just that to lots of South Koreans.

As a highly contagious bird flu continues to spread through southern and central South Korea with new cases confirmed and more suspected cases reported nearly every day, consumers are shunning chicken dishes, meat prices are plummeting and the government is scrambling to shore up thousands of poultry growers.

"People are not buying chicken. Our chicken sales have dropped by 50 percent because of the disease," Shin Seung-nyo, a sales clerk at Seoul's large Lotte Department Store chain, said on Thursday.

Fear of chicken is running high in South Korea because it is not yet clear whether the bird flu decimating the nation's flocks is the same variant that jumped from birds to humans in Hong Kong in 1997, killing six people.

Coupled with the bird flu, a mad cow scare too was spreading, a day after South Korea halted imports of US beef on Wednesday and suspended sales of US beef already on the market after an outbreak of mad cow disease in the US.

Seoul's E-Mart and other supermarket outlets put out signs that said, "We sell clean Australian beef only!" or "We don't sell American beef!" Nonetheless, they feared sharp drops in beef sales. US beef accounts for 44 percent of all beef consumption in South Korea.

Since bird flu hit South Korea two weeks ago, chicken prices have dropped 38 percent, according to the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry.

About 1.1 million chickens and ducks have already been culled to contain the disease. And the ministry said Thursday that 240,000 chicks and eggs will be destroyed every day over the next month.

To help chicken farmers, the government will be buying 2.5 million chickens over that period and the 650,000-member armed forces have been ordered to put more chicken in the mess halls.

"We are asking suppliers for the military and schools to buy more chickens," the ministry said in a statement. "We need to persuade people that chicken and ducks are safe to eat when they are properly cooked."

In the past week, Prime Minister Goh Kun and other government officials have paraded out in public, eating chicken in restaurants while the TV cameras rolled. They distributed free boiled eggs and chicken as well as leaflets urging people to consume more chicken.

But the flu continued to spread. Authorities said Thursday another farm had been infected and received reports of five more suspected cases. They ordered the killing of all chickens and ducks within 3km of all 11 affected farms.

Experts say the bird flu is caused by the H5N1 virus.

Virus samples have been sent to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, for definitive testing to see whether it is the H5N1-97 strain that crossed to humans in Hong Kong.

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