Sun, Feb 01, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Weary Hong Kong poultry vendors get it in the neck


First bird flu, then SARS, now bird flu again. Hong Kong's chicken vendors can't seem to catch a break.

Their precarious existence is highlighted as a deadly strain of avian influenza makes its way through Asia, sparking concerns about traditional Chinese shops where live chickens are stocked en masse and killed on the spot.

In Hong Kong, there are renewed fears of restrictions on live chicken sales even though the territory isn't among the 10 affected nations.

An outright ban was raised after a 1997 bird flu outbreak that killed six people, and then floated again in the aftermath of SARS -- which was also found in civet cats.

With every disease outbreak comes the looming prospect of a crackdown. None has materialized so far, but it makes for some anxious chicken dealers.

Sales at the Fat Kid Lam Cheung Shop in the Wan Chai office district are already down 50 percent because of bird flu fears.

Standing by rows of neatly stacked cages packed with brown and white hens, a shopkeeper surnamed Siu said media coverage of the latest Asian outbreak had spooked customers.

"There's nothing wrong with our chicken," said Siu, before shooing off a reporter.

Despite tough rhetoric -- a senior official last year called wet markets an epidemic "time bomb" -- the government has treaded lightly in exploring curbs on live fowl retailing.

A consultation document is expected next month, but it's limited to centralizing chicken slaughtering.

Hong Kongers, who take freshness seriously, also won't settle for chicken of the supermarket frozen variety.

"Once chicken has been frozen, the texture is completely different ... it's tasteless," said Chan Keung-wing, 65, who works for a live fowl vendor.

Chan's boss, who gave only his family name, Ho, said existing bird flu controls are already sufficient.

The territory has halted poultry imports from avian flu-infected mainland China -- also its top external source of live birds -- and ordered local farms to keep their stock off the market temporarily. Officials have also stepped up hygiene checks on dealers.

All Hong Kong chicken and imports from China are vaccinated against bird flu.

"How can something go wrong with all these measures?" Ho said.

But some experts say cramped live chicken shops are behind the current outbreak's rapid spread.

Ho's shop, which claims to sell "anything with a wing," overflowed with cartons full of birds. Several dirty butcher knives hung alongside one cage containing pigeons.

"Don't worry, we'll clean them soon," Ho said nervously when asked.

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