Chicken abattoir shelved
Ella Lee and Ng Yuk-hang
Thirteen years after it was first touted as an essential measure to protect the city from potentially fatal bird flu, the idea of a central slaughterhouse for chickens has been shelved.
The Executive Council approved the decision on Tuesday, three weeks after the government said a consultant hired to study central slaughtering had concluded it was not viable. It was to have replaced the live chicken trade altogether.
Secretary for Food and Health Dr York Chow Yat-ngok said the current low risk of bird flu in the city meant central slaughtering was no longer needed, at least for now.
The priority was to maintain public health while allowing those who could afford live chickens to buy what they wanted, Chow said.
Chicken traders criticised the move. They said they felt cheated after selling back their licences to the government in the expectation the live trade would vanish.
Central slaughtering was first discussed after six people died of bird flu in 1997. Hong Kong was the first city to have a human outbreak of the disease, which has since spread around the globe. Health officials said it would be a final solution to control the disease.
But the deadline for establishing a central slaughterhouse was repeatedly delayed in the face of opposition from the poultry trade.
Meanwhile, the number of stalls selling live chickens fell from 800 to 133 after the government began buying back licences in 2008 and banned stallholders from keeping live poultry at markets overnight.
Frozen and chilled birds now account for 94 per cent of all chickens eaten in Hong Kong, compared with 60 per cent before.
'If this trend continues, demand for live chickens will remain steady or even decrease,' Chow said. 'This will further reduce the need to develop a poultry slaughtering centre.'
The government would keep the number of live chicken imports and retail outlets unchanged, he said. The shelving of central slaughtering would not necessarily be permanent as the flu virus and the risk of outbreaks could change at any time.
Steven Wong Wai-chuen, former chairman of the Poultry Wholesalers and Retailers Association, said the vendors who surrendered their licences had been betrayed. 'We totally believed the government that central slaughtering was going to happen,' he said.
The government said it had made its decision after consulting the Centre for Health Protection's scientific committee on emerging and zoonotic diseases. Zoonotic diseases can be transmitted to humans from animals.
Committee chairman Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, head of microbiology at the University of Hong Kong, who has advocated central slaughtering, denied he had changed his position.
'The risk of bird flu in Hong Kong is very low given a significant drop in fresh chicken consumption and the policy of no overnight chickens at wet markets. We look at the hard science. We don't care about politics,' Yuen said. He said central slaughtering should be reconsidered if more people start eating fresh chickens or if the current controls no longer work.
Dr Lo Wing-lok, a specialist in infectious diseases, supported the decision and agreed that the risk of bird flu had become very low.
But a University of Hong Kong microbiologist, Ho Pak-leung, said central slaughtering was still the best way to control bird flu.
This is an edited version of an article which appeared in the South China Morning Post on June 2