Live chicken trade must be ended swiftly
The re-emergence of the bird flu virus in our wet markets has helped to focus minds and force the government to seek a long-term solution to the live poultry trade. It has essentially been government policy, at least since 2005, to end the trade by buying back all licences. But the success of an enhanced surveillance system and stepped-up hygiene regime at the markets took the urgency out of the matter. The latest crisis shows that Hong Kong cannot afford any more delays.
Bird flu is the single greatest known threat to our public health. The government must take immediate and necessary steps to prevent further outbreaks. This is why officials announced a HK$1 billion package to compensate chicken farmers, wholesalers, retailers and transport workers for giving up their trade. It is clear that the best way to halt the spread of bird flu is to eliminate contact between live poultry and people. Ending the trade now will be more effective than waiting at least three years for central slaughtering.
The government, however, is facing resistance on two fronts. First, Chinese people have long insisted on freshness for their food and buying live poultry is almost a culinary ritual. This must be overcome. People will, in the interests of public health, have to get used to chilled or frozen chickens. Resistance from traders, however, will be much more difficult to resolve. They must accept that their trade cannot continue for much longer. But they are entitled to reasonable compensation. The traders are being asked to give up their way of life; they deserve to be compensated not only for their immediate loss of business but future lost earnings as a result of not being able to continue their trade. However, statements from various groups in the trade yesterday showed a wide gulf still separates what the government offers and what they are demanding.
The government has been ever ready to compensate generously when it takes back land for public use or redevelopment. Since it is now fighting to protect public health, it should show the same generous spirit. But negotiations cannot be allowed to drag on. The government is right to set a deadline. The priority must be to bring live poultry sales to an end in order to safeguard public health.