Live chickens 'now a luxury item'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 June, 2010, 12:00am

Government policies may be to blame for live chickens becoming 'luxury goods', the health minister admitted yesterday, as it was decided to shelve a plan to introduce central slaughtering.

The proposal had prompted hundreds of vendors to give up their licences.

'Vendors are selling live chickens as if they are luxury goods. Their price is at least double that of chilled chickens,' Dr York Chow Yat-ngok, the secretary for food and health, said.

He could not rule out that this was related to government policy.

As the risk of bird flu loomed in the past decade, the government offered compensation packages twice - in 2004 and in 2008 - to live chicken vendors who were willing to give up their licences.

The number of stalls dropped from more than 800 in 2004 to 133 now, while imports of live chickens dropped from 30,000 to 7,000.

Live chickens sell for HK$40 to HK$55 a catty, at least HK$10 more than before hundreds of vendors surrendered their licences from 2004 to 2008. The price is higher during festivals such as the Lunar New Year.

Chow acknowledged that some retailers raised live chicken prices so much that they could make the same profits even though supplies had been cut. But he said the government had no plans to regulate prices as it supported a free market.

'With the risk of bird flu lowered, we hope we can maintain a limited live chicken supply for those who need and can afford it,' he said.

A former chairman of the Poultry Wholesalers and Retailers Association, Steven Wong Wai-chuen - who received HK$2 million when he surrendered his licence in 2008 - said the industry had been betrayed. He said the vendors voluntarily gave up their licences because they believed central slaughtering would begin in 2010.

'I would not be able to make HK$2 million in two years, but it would have been a different story if we knew we could continue our business,' he said. They would now discuss the possibility of taking action, such as launching a judicial review and urging the government to issue licences again.

But Chow said the number of stalls and the quantity of live chicken imports would remain unchanged. 'We have to maintain the existing practice in order to better monitor the risk of bird flu.'

He said the government had made it clear to the vendors that the plan for central slaughtering might be reassessed.

Some vendors decided to give up their licences after a ruling in 2008 that live chickens could not be kept at markets overnight. 'It was entirely their choice to surrender the licences. Some chose to stay on,' Chow said.

Chan Sau-kuen, who chose not to give up her licence, has been rewarded. She sells 120 chickens a day now, 30 per cent more than previously, after the other three vendors in her market surrendered their licences.

The secretary of the New Territories Chicken Breeders Association, Lee Leung-kei, welcomed the government's decision. 'Buying live chickens is deeply rooted in Hong Kong culture. Many Hongkongers still prefer watching chickens slaughtered in front of them,' he said.

A vendor of chilled chickens said she was disappointed that central slaughtering had been shelved but still believed more people would switch to chilled chickens. 'Live chickens are so expensive that not everyone can afford them.'

Chicken and the egg

Hong Kong's chicken industry before and after the campaigns to get live chicken vendors to surrender their licences

Retail outlets

Then*: 800 (2004)
Now: 133

Chicken farms

Then*: 192 (2004)
Now: 30

Number of live chickens raised in city

Then*: 3.9m (2004)
Now: 1.3m

Live chicken retail price per catty

Then*: HK$28-$30 (2004)
Now: HK$40-$55

Daily imports from mainland

Then*: 30,000 (2004)
Now: 7,000

Sales volume: frozen and chilled v live chickens

Then*: 60/40 (2003)
Now: 94/6

H9N2 virus rate in poultry

Then*: 5.1% (2008)
Now: 0.09%

*'Then' figures represent peak level before surrender of licences