As Guangzhou suspended live-poultry sales in nearly a third of its wet markets and substituted central slaughtering as part of a pilot scheme, a spokeswoman for the Hong Kong government revealed that it was revisiting the live-trade issue. It was not that 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 dangerous infectious diseases. The government shelved the idea after a consultant said it would be uneconomic, amid a false sense of security created by improved defences against bird flu.
Then former health minister Dr York Chow Yat-ngok said the decision might not be permanent as viruses and the risk could change. Guangzhou authorities clearly think that time has arrived, after stalls in 60 per cent of the city's wet markets tested positive for the deadly H7N9 bird flu virus at the end of last month. After the trial ends on September 30, the city government proposes extending the ban to other parts of the metropolis. The policy has met resistance based on culinary preference, which helped defeat the proposal in Hong Kong - along with protests from residents near suggested central slaughtering sites.
However, the Hong Kong government spokeswoman said it was time to talk with the poultry trade and residents about whether sales of live poultry were still appropriate. The government would again hire a consultant to study the issue and make recommendations. The willingness to revisit the issue in the public interest is welcome. It follows the suspension of all live poultry sales for 21 days over Lunar New Year - and a longer ban on mainland birds pending segregation measures - after the H7N9 virus was discovered in a mainland bird in the Cheung Sha Wan wholesale market. The live-chicken trade was linked to the 1997 outbreak of H5N1 bird flu that killed six people. Central slaughtering would put an end to it. It may be uneconomic and unpopular. But this has to be weighed against the human and economic costs of infection outbreaks.