Traders fail to meet buyout threshold

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 July, 2008, 12:00am

Not enough chicken stalls give up licences

The buyout plan for live-chicken retailers was on the verge of collapse last night after just over 72 per cent of the traders had surrendered their licences by the 8pm deadline - well short of the 85 per cent threshold set by the government.

As the Food and Health Bureau pondered its next move, expected to be announced today, traders warned of 'big trouble' if the multimillion-dollar buyout offer was withdrawn.

The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department said last night 339 live-poultry retailers, including 178 market tenants and 161 fresh provision shop licensees, had applied to permanently surrender their permission to sell live poultry.

This was 72.4 per cent of the 468 eligible applicants, which include 260 market stall tenants and 208 fresh provision shop licensees.

The bureau made no comment last night but was expected to spell out its next step today.

The take-up rate was even less than that predicted by trade representatives, who had earlier made a last-minute call for flexibility over the threshold, saying they feared the acceptance rate could be as low as 75 per cent.

Poultry Wholesalers' and Retailers' Association chairman Steven Wong Wai-chuen said late last night that the figure was far below what he had expected and he was not sure what the government's next move might be.

'It could bring big trouble if it withdraws the buyout,' he said. 'There are about 40 traders who have sold all their gear and have been waiting to get the compensation. They could bring along live chickens to knock on Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's door later.'

Under the scheme, introduced to cut the bird flu risk inherent in live chicken sales, stallholders surrendering their licences would get HK$800,000 to HK$3.2 million in compensation, depending on the size of the stall.

Mr Wong, who has worked as a chicken retailer for 28 years and has a stall in North Point, would get about HK$3 million.

The association had been predicting that 80 per cent would join the scheme and had asked the government to settle for that. But Mr Wong cut the estimate to 75 per cent yesterday because of disputes between licence holders and some store operators.

'Some licence owners rent out their shops for others to operate. Under the scheme, the holders can get compensation but the operators won't. About 50 shops therefore decided not to join the scheme at the last minute amid heated arguments,' Mr Wong said.

He wanted to quit because he could not function under the requirement that all unsold chickens be slaughtered at the end of each day, introduced after the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus was found in poultry droppings at four wet markets last month.

'We feel sorry for our loyal customers, but I can't continue any more,' he said. 'I cannot guarantee the quality of the chicken.'

Mak Ching-yee, a live chicken retailer in Tai Kok Tsui for more than 15 years, was among those who decided not to give up their licences.

'We want to serve Hong Kong's gourmets,' he said yesterday. 'Fresh chicken is very different from frozen chicken.'

Mr Mak, one of only two retailers in the area, denied he was hoping to get a monopoly after the other operator expressed willingness to join the scheme.

'There are still many vendors nearby in Mong Kok and Sham Shui Po and many people buy frozen chickens because they are cheaper,' he said.

Live chicken sells for about HK$30 a catty and frozen for HK$20.

The scheme is the first step in a HK$1.23 billion plan to buy back all chicken-trade licences. Similar schemes will be introduced later for 52 poultry farmers, 71 wholesalers and 250 transporters.