Overstocked farms on hit list after compensation reviewed

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 April, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 April, 2002, 12:00am

The Government is targeting overstocked farms under new licensing rules after reviewing its compensation policy to avoid potential abuse.

When the first bird flu hit Hong Kong in 1997, crossing the species barrier and killing six people, the public was generally sympathetic towards farmers, who suffered huge losses from a territory-wide culling of all chickens and suspension of their trade.

But as the epidemic has recurred, critics have started to question why taxpayers have to subsidise over-crowded farms with poor hygiene.

Under the current policy, the Government pays $4, $18 and $28 for each chicken killed, according to size, to control the disease. The administration has so far spent $207.6 million to compensate farms during three chicken culls.

If this sum is spread equally over the 22.3 million local chickens consumed between 1997 and March this year, it means taxpayers have paid an extra $9.30 for each chicken consumed.

The bird flu surveillance programme also costs taxpayers more than $30 million a year. The annual cost jumped to $33 million in the previous financial year and is estimated to cost $39.7 million this financial year.

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department will spend another $480,000 this year to vaccinate chickens against H5 at the 27 farms in Yuen Long.

A department spokesman said it was aware the public had doubts over whether to compensate farms which failed to observe licensing conditions or basic hygiene requirements.

The new licensing condition concerning the maximum number of birds that each farm can keep came into effect in late February. Under the new rules, the Director of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation has the power to confiscate birds that farmers have kept in excess of the allowed number.

If an overstocked farm is infected and the birds have to be slaughtered, the Government will only compensate the farmer for the number of birds allowed to be kept on his farm. The rest will simply be confiscated before being slaughtered.

The spokesman said it was also common practice for other governments to compensate owners of animals slaughtered as a disease control measure.

'There are two reasons for this practice to be widely adopted. First, there is no measure or system that can render a farm disease-proof. Very often a farmer cannot be held responsible for the outbreak of disease on his farm. Thus it is generally accepted that farmers whose livelihood is affected by animal disease should be compensated for their losses.

'Second, if there is no compensation, there may be a disincentive for farmers to report animal disease, making it difficult for the Government to detect and control animal disease at an early stage.'