Ban on stocking of live chickens overnight looms in bird flu scare

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2008, 12:00am

A ban on the stocking of live chickens overnight at Hong Kong markets is looking increasingly likely - despite strong opposition from poultry traders.

Health minister York Chow Yat-ngok told legislators yesterday the ban was necessary, and would benefit traders, after culls of live chickens at wet markets and a temporary ban on live chicken sales prompted by the discovery of the deadly H5N1 virus in chickens at four markets.

Dr Chow also warned that the sales ban could be extended if no satisfactory measures could be worked out to guarantee public health.

The secretary for food and health told a Legislative Council food safety and environmental hygiene panel: 'The overnight [chicken] ban is necessary to avoid the virus spreading in the market. It is to protect the health of traders too. If we find the H5N1 virus, we shall have to cull all chickens.'

Macau has long banned the overnight storage of chickens.

But Hong Kong Poultry Wholesalers and Retailers Association chairman Wong Wai-chuen said the city's situation was 'totally different' from that of Macau.

'Our stall rentals are much higher,' he said. 'We could suffer huge losses if we have to cull the stock that we cannot sell during the day.'

Hong Kong and Kowloon Poultry Dealers and Workers Association chairman Wong Wing-nam said his association wanted the government to buy back left-over chickens if the overnight ban was introduced.

The sale of live chickens has been banned until July 2. Chicken imports from the mainland and supplies from local chicken farms have been halted.

After investigations failed to track down the source of infected chickens there was speculation that they had been smuggled in.

But officials told legislators that smuggling of chickens was not a serious problem and that there had been only five such smuggling attempts detected since January last year.

Some legislators supported traders' demands that the sales ban be lifted earlier if the government could not find the virus in samples taken from local farms.

'You have checked all farms and found no bird flu cases,' legislator Wong Kwok-hing said. 'What do you want the farmers to do with the chickens stuck on their farms, if they cannot sell them?'

Fellow panellist Vincent Fang Kang said traders had followed all government guidelines and the virus had only been found in faecal samples. 'If local farms are safe, the government should allow them to sell chickens,' he said.

Dr Chow said a package of measures, including possible compensation, could be expected this week in relation to unsold birds on farms.

Outside the Legco building, a group of poultry workers staged a protest against the ban, and demanded compensation.