Government lets us all down in flip-flop over central abattoir

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 June, 2010, 12:00am

There's a very fishy smell to the government's decision to cancel the central poultry slaughterhouse - the reasons given are as spurious as a snake-oil salesman's patter.

In a suspiciously short time, the food and health minister has transformed himself.

He has gone from being a zealous moderniser, persuading Hong Kong's virus-prone poultry industry to surrender its licences and buy into the brave new world of a centralised abattoir, to now humbly accepting the arguments of 'science' in order to keep the status quo. So we must stick with an antiquated, live-chicken sale system that no other modern, first-world society would tolerate.

The only thing that has changed since the licence surrender policy was implemented is that the numbers of live birds have become more concentrated in fewer hands.

This allows the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department's Sheung Shui laboratories a more manageable sampling volume to cope with.

What does he say to the stallholders now? 'We got it wrong. You could have kept your licences if only we had used the compensation to provide more testing centres' - perhaps?

In fact, by forcing stallholders to give up their livelihoods on the false promise of imminent 'centralisation', Secretary for Food and Health Dr York Chow Yat-ngok only reduced the footprint of live-chicken sales around Hong Kong, but he did not remove the threat of bird flu transmission.

The risk profile may have changed but it is not 'science' that is driving the decision, it is economics and political convenience.

By not going through with the central poultry slaughterhouse scheme, Dr Chow takes the project off his desk and kicks it down the line to his successor.

Unfortunately for Hong Kong, what he and the 'science' appear to overlook is the threat posed by smuggled chickens.

Since the reduction of live-bird outlets feeds into higher prices because of the restricted supply, particularly during holidays, smugglers have been given fresh incentives by his decision. It can only be a matter of time before the virus reappears in Hong Kong from poultry sources outside the government's control.

Hong Kong has once again been sold short on political leadership, which would have seen the central slaughterhouse pushed through.

Toeing the line of least resistance merely reflects a short-term policy of wanting a quiet life until the end of the minister's term.

This is another symptom of a governing system that uses politically weak appointees rather than democratically elected leaders with the confidence and the mandate to make the tough decisions Hong Kong needs.

Suzanna Lai, Jardine's Lookout