H7N9 virus

Stop mainland China chicken imports, says Hong Kong vet

Decision to close down city's own poultry farms was wrong and we can no longer guarantee our food is safe, warns government's former top vet

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 April, 2013, 9:52am


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The city should stop importing live poultry from the mainland to cut the risk of the deadly H7N9 bird flu entering Hong Kong, said the government's former top vet who is a specialist in epidemics.

Howard Wong Kai-hay, who was principle veterinary officer at the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department until late last year, warned the inspection process was not thorough enough and food safety was at risk.

Experts have said imported poultry is the most likely path for the new bird flu to pass from the mainland into Hong Kong. There is so far no indication that the virus is capable of human to human transmission.

Wong, who is now head of City University's life sciences programmes, wants to see a change in government policies to encourage the city - where farmed birds are subject to a mandatory vaccination scheme and stringent AFCD inspection once every seven days - to become self-sufficient in poultry.

"Getting rid of local farms was the wrong direction to take," said Wong.

"The government wanted to eliminate local farms to lower the risk of bird flu after the pandemic in 1997, but it has had the opposite effect.

"By buying poultry from outside the city, it has increased the risk, to the extent we are no longer able to guarantee our food is safe," he added.

The number of local poultry farms has fallen from 192 to 30 after a voluntary surrender scheme introduced to poultry raisers in 2004 and 2008. But Wong said: "If all the birds are home-grown and subject to testing at different ages, it is more likely to be disease-free."

There are 63 mainland poultry farms registered as suppliers to Hong Kong. The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department said it had inspected 29 of them last year, down from 41 inspection visits in 2010. Last year, these farms sent 3.54 million live birds across the border to the city.

Wong said: "It is clear that the problem of disease and food safety has not been solved, it simply has been pushed somewhere else that is out of our control.

"We can only test and cull the birds after they have been brought into the city, but we cannot participate in how they are raised. Producers always try to use ways to increase their profits. Sometimes they may use chemicals or drugs to boost animals' growth, which may or may not affect human health.

"If a small pig or bird is fed with drugs, it may not be detectable when it grows older and is tested."

Tang Wai-lun, of the New Territories Chicken Breeders Association, wants to see all mainland imports of poultry suspended with immediate effect as a precaution against a pandemic.

With the 30 existing poultry farms providing 1.3 million chickens, Tang added: "Local farms are perfectly capable of supplying all the 7,000 live chickens consumed daily by Hongkongers if the government policy could be more encouraging to us."

In Hong Kong, samples are collected from poultry for testing in at least four stages of growth during each weekly inspection. Farms are also required to have sentinel chickens - unvaccinated chickens - to detect infection.

The threat of H7N9 saw a new quick test introduced on 3 per cent of imported birds at the border on April 11. The government has said all birds will be culled and imports suspended if there is a positive case.

Dr Leung Ting-hung, controller of the government's Centre for Health Protection, said yesterday that one feature of the more than 90 H7N9 cases in the mainland so far is that there are twice as many male victims as female.

Addressing the Doctor's Union, he said experts have linked the figure to a similar ratio of men and women visiting poultry markets in Eastern China. Experts were also looking to see if there was a link to smoking.