The Lunar New Year will not be the same without chicken for the traditional family feast. For many Hongkongers, that is a disappointing start to the season, but it is an inevitability now that 20,000 chickens have been culled to prevent the spread of bird flu. Many would rather go without than opt for frozen meat over fresh; the mindset can be deeply conservative when it comes to age-old customs. Yet the threat from the disease is such that serious consideration has to be given to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's suggestion that we should stop importing live poultry from the mainland altogether.
Hong Kong culls 20,000 chickens after H7N9 found
This is far from the first time supplies have been disrupted in such a way. Chickens have had to be culled five times since 1997, when six people died in the first recorded bird flu outbreak in our city. A stringent monitoring system and safety mechanism is in place and it is well established, as shown by the finding this week of the H7N9 strain in samples taken from the Cheung Sha Wan wholesale market. Detection is an automatic trigger for the removal of at-risk poultry, the stopping of cross-border imports and a 21-day ban on live sales.
Traders are understandably unhappy and are seeking compensation. That the positive samples came from chickens imported from a Guangdong farm again raises questions about the safety of food from the mainland. Calls that have been made each time there has been an outbreak have resurfaced: that there should be central slaughtering of poultry and more reliance on frozen chicken. As Secretary for Food and Health Ko Wing-man pointed out yesterday, there is a high social and financial cost.
A reluctance by residents to give sway to tradition and the potential loss of thousands of jobs have been cause for the government to hold off on permanently banning mainland imports and putting in place alternatives. But, as Leung indicated yesterday, the matter is about weighing the desire for live chickens against the health risks of imports. There has only been one death in Hong Kong from H7N9, but 65 from 248 cases on the mainland. With hundreds of millions of people on the move during the festive season, the dangers are increased.
Vigilance is the key to containing bird flu viruses, but their nature and the possibility they could mutate to easily spread among people makes the strongest preventive measures necessary. The dangers and risks mean that there is now every need to consider putting public health above tradition.