Smuggling fertilised eggs 'easy' way around curbs on live chicks

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 December, 2008, 12:00am

Government officials could never stop the smuggling of fertilised eggs to Hong Kong because the loopholes in the bird flu control system were 'too easy to get through', an industry source said.

The source made the comment after Tsui Ming-tuen, chairman of the Live Poultry Wholesalers Association, supported claims that farms had smuggled fertilised eggs from the mainland to boost their chicken supplies since the government curbed imports of day-old chicks.

Mr Tsui said there was a strong link between the alleged smuggling and the bird flu outbreak this time. However, New Territories Chicken Breeders Association secretary Wong Yee-chuen, who owns the farm where the outbreak occurred, has denied he used smuggled eggs.

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said importing fertilised eggs was prohibited. A spokesman said the department had occasionally received complaints from the industry about smuggling of embryo eggs but so far 'no abnormal situation' had been spotted.

But the trade source said the department's egg accounting system was 'useless'.

'No one can tell for sure how many eggs or chicks each hen can produce. It is very easy to smuggle fertilised eggs as food to local farms and report false accounts to the department.

'It is impossible for the government to plug the loophole. How can someone differentiate a fertilised egg from a food egg?

'The only way to stop the smuggling of fertilised eggs is to ban all chicken breeding and hatcheries in Hong Kong so every single imported live chicken can be traced back,' the source said.

The source added that smuggling of live chickens from the mainland was also common.

The department spokesman said: 'We are doing our best to stamp out smuggling [of eggs] but no system is 100 per cent effective.'

Six of the 31 local chicken farms have their own breeder chickens, while another four hatcheries can use fertilised eggs from local farms to produce day-old chicks.

The department staff regularly inspect these farms to monitor the number of eggs and day-old chicks.

University of Hong Kong head of microbiology Yuen Kwok-yung said a thorough investigation should be conducted into the allegation of smuggled fertilised eggs.

Professor Yuen warned that studies had found that eggs from H5- infected chickens carried the deadly virus on the shells.

'The baby chicks hatched from these eggs may die quickly, but there are viruses on the shells and they can contaminate the environment and other chickens in the farms,' he said.

The number of imported day-old chickens from the mainland has dropped by about half from 11.4 million in 2005 to 5.8 million in 2007, and 2.6 million during the first 10 months of this year.

Fred Li Wah-ming, Democratic Party legislator and chairman of the Legislative Council's food safety and environmental hygiene panel, said he doubted the claims of fertilised-egg smuggling but they still needed to be investigated.