It was not long ago that banning the sale of live poultry in our markets and moving to a system of central slaughtering was seen as necessary to protect us from deadly infectious diseases. The government finally decided that reduced risk made the idea politically expendable and shelved it. Then-health minister York Chow Yat-ngok said at the time that the decision was not necessarily permanent, as the virus itself and the risk could change.
The time to reconsider may not be far off. The risk has changed with the emergence of the H7N9 bird flu virus on the mainland. The reasons for shelving the idea included: improved defences against bird flu, such as a big reduction in live-chicken stalls through a government licence buy-back; opposition from the poultry trade; and protests from residents near any proposed site of a slaughterhouse - not to mention local culinary preference.
The live-chicken trade was linked to the 1997 outbreak of H5N1 bird flu that killed six people before a mass slaughter of birds halted it, and in its reappearance in wet markets and farms from time to time. Central slaughtering would put an end to the trade. The decision to shelve it was triggered by a consultant's report that it was no longer financially viable. How the financials were weighed against lives was never explained. It would have safeguarded us from bird flu by preventing human contact with birds that may be carrying it.
A day after the plan was shelved, a check on wet markets showed patchy compliance with rules for keeping poultry that are supposed to keep us safe. Within 18 months the reappearance of H5N1 in our live-chicken market prompted officials to ban supplies for three weeks.
Though the H7N9 outbreak has so far remained distant, officials have implemented emergency precautions in our markets, farms and at the border with the mainland. They have given an assurance that Tamiflu, of which Hong Kong has a large stockpile, is an effective treatment. However, we trust that if the outbreak leads to revival of the central slaughtering plan, the government will act more decisively in the public interest.
When it first ran into obstacles, another former health minister, Yeoh Eng-kiong, noted that public policies could be difficult to implement in a political system with functional constituencies which reflected the concerns of trade groups. Neither trade issues, nor the not-in-my-backyard syndrome, should be allowed to outweigh serious public health concerns.