Vendors break the rules on live chickens
Vendors of live chickens are not adhering to a set of hygiene rules and guidelines aimed at reducing the risk of bird flu outbreaks, with many slaughtering chickens bare-handed and some keeping poultry in overcrowded cages.
This comes a day after the government said it would shelve a central slaughterhouse plan - once touted as essential to prevent bird flu - saying the risk of outbreaks had dropped.
The vendors are also breaching requirements to keep the organs of slaughtered birds in a refrigerator and to keep the cages at least 30 centimetres above ground.
The requirements - which vendors must observe to keep their licences - were put forward by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department in 2001. There is also a set of hygiene guidelines vendors are advised to follow.
The department said that since 2001, eight wet market vendors had had their licences revoked for not meeting hygiene requirements.
Five appealed to the Municipal Services Appeals Board, which exercised discretion in three cases, allowing them to resume trading.
Under the hygiene guidelines, vendors are advised to wear gloves and aprons when touching chickens and putting feathers and faeces into bins with lids. Different types of poultry must be put in separate cages, with at least 300 sq cm of individual space for each bird.
But observation of five stalls in three markets in Kowloon and Hong Kong Island revealed few vendors adhering to the rules or guidelines.
Most were catching poultry with their bare hands, and staff slaughtered the chickens with only one glove. They did not wash their hands with soap afterwards.
Instead of refrigerating organs, they were displayed in a basket on top of cages at room temperature. Feathers and faeces were scattered on the ground at some stalls.
In one stall at a Kowloon market, at least 10 chickens were crowded into a narrow cage. In at least two stalls, birds of different species were put together. Some chickens were also put in cages which were only 10cm above the ground.
But both vendors and shoppers were satisfied by the stalls' hygiene.
'Bird flu has not struck us for many years. It is unnecessary to remain on such high alert,' a worker at one stall said. A female shopper agreed that vigilance could be reduced. 'The chicken vendors handle poultry every day for so many hours, and yet they do not have any problems. Why should we be fearful?'
But an infectious disease specialist warned against such practices.
Dr Lo Wing-lok said vendors should always wear gloves to minimise the chance of bird flu infection in wounds, and should wear aprons in order to keep the bacteria in poultry faeces off their clothes. But he said it was impossible to expect vendors to strictly follow the rules without many more inspections and prosecutions.
'I have been observing wet markets for a decade. Some habits just cannot be changed,' he said.
The government on Tuesday announced it would shelve central slaughtering, saying the risk of bird flu was significantly lower since the 1997 outbreak that killed six people. The decision was made based on the fact that fewer live chickens were sold in the city. Between 2004 and 2008, the number of stalls selling live chickens dropped from more than 800 to 133, after the government began buying back the licences and banned vendors from keeping live poultry at markets overnight.
Lo said it would be ideal to buy back the remaining 133 licences, but it would be practically impossible since that would also mean the entire closure of local chicken farms, thus affecting the livelihood of many.
With most stalls ignoring the department's hygiene guidelines, one in Kowloon City was following the rules to the letter.
Shop owner Chow Hon-ling was properly attired - in fact, she was wearing two pairs of gloves. 'It is important to maintain our hygiene standard, so that more customers will have confidence in us,' she said.