Letter to Sheen puts gloss on chicken trade

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 October, 2003, 12:00am

Animal welfare is a priority in HK, officials say in a response to the actor

The government has finally answered a letter sent by US actor and animal rights activist Martin Sheen, who expressed concern about Hong Kong's treatment of live poultry. Three weeks after Sheen wrote to Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, officials replied that animal welfare was an integral part of the city's public health service.

An official letter sent yesterday said it would consult the poultry trade to consider banning the sale of live chickens in wet markets, an option which Sheen said he supported.

'In devising measures to tackle the avian influenza problem, we have also taken into account the need to protect animal welfare,' said the government letter, issued by the Health, Welfare and Food Bureau.

'[A sales ban] will have a profound effect not only on the live poultry trade but also on the community's traditional eating habits.'

Sheen, best known in Hong Kong for playing President Josiah Bartlet in the hit television series The West Wing, said the sale of live poultry was not only cruel but a danger to public health because of diseases such as bird flu.

'The anguish of animals who are transported to and sold at live markets is obvious. Chickens are crammed into tiny, filthy wire cages, suffering tremendously from extreme heat and stress, and many die from heat exhaustion,' Sheen wrote in the letter dated September 23 and sent on behalf of the international animal welfare group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta).

Peta spokesman in Hong Kong Jason Baker commended the government for its reply. 'Their letter is encouraging and we hope that it has helped to focus the government's attention on the plight of Hong Kong's chickens and the health of the Hong Kong people,' he said.

The bureau announced last month it would consider banning the sale of live poultry but still allow either the sale of chilled and frozen chickens or freshly killed chickens. Another option is to install physical barriers separating customers and live chickens at wet markets.

The bureau hopes to conduct a consultation at the end of December on the proposed options. The poultry industry opposes a ban on the sale of live chickens because it says it would put at least 10,000 people out of work.