Egg-smuggling claim sparks checks on farms

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

Latest bird flu outbreak caused by deadly H5N1 strain

Checks on poultry farms will be mounted by the government in the next few days after a chicken-trade leader blamed smuggled fertilised eggs for causing the latest bird flu outbreak - confirmed yesterday to have been caused by the deadly H5N1 virus strain.

Secretary for Food and Health York Chow Yat-ngok said he would not rule out any possibility, including smuggled eggs, as the cause of the outbreak, which killed 200 chickens at a Yuen Long farm early this week and led to the culling of 90,000 birds.

The South China Morning Post yesterday reported trade sources saying that smuggled fertilised eggs from the mainland containing chicken embryos that may be infected were bypassing government bird flu control measures and could be spreading the disease.

The farm owner has insisted he did not use any smuggled eggs, but Hong Kong Live Poultry Wholesalers Association chairman Tsui Ming-tuen said yesterday he had evidence that eggs were smuggled into the farm.

Dr Chow said poultry farms were checked about once a week by inspectors from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, who recorded the number of chicken breeders, young chicks and fertilised eggs.

'With the preliminary figures, we do not see any significant change of numbers on chicken farms in Hong Kong. But since the trade said [smuggling eggs] is a common practice, we will do another round in the coming days to ensure our system is complied with,' he said.

'I think theoretically this can happen, but we do not have any evidence so far,' Dr Chow said of the egg-smuggling theory.

'I would appeal to the trade to give us any evidence if they can actually provide information.'

He also said the latest outbreak and the discovery of the virus in wet markets in June had come before occasions such as the Dragon Boat Festival and the winter solstice, when there was high demand for chicken.

Mr Tsui said people living near the Lau Fau Shan farm owned by New Territories Chicken Breeders' Association secretary Wong Yee-chuen, where the outbreak occurred, had seen eggs being smuggled into the farm. 'Of course, we have both witnesses and evidence,' he said. 'And they will come out to testify if there is such a need.'

Rejecting his claim, Mr Wong said: 'He does not raise chickens and he accuses people who raise chickens. What does he know? My farm has never imported any smuggled eggs,' he said, adding that the infected birds were all more than 40 days old. 'As far as I know, according to experience from many farms overseas, sick chicks won't survive long, or may even fail to hatch.'

Leo Poon Lit-man, University of Hong Kong assistant professor in microbiology, said: 'If a chicken is infected with bird flu, it may not be able to lay any eggs, or the number of eggs it lays will be very small. I do not think there will be a large number of infected eggs available. In some experiments, we deliberately planted a virus into fertilised eggs. They might not hatch at all, or even if they did hatch, they would not survive long.'

Lee Leung-kei, of the New Territories Chicken Breeders' Association, denied embryonic chicks had been smuggled to Hong Kong.