Chicken was absent from many local dinner tables last night as Hongkongers celebrated winter solstice, with wet market vendors complaining of a drop in sales because of bird flu fears.
Trader Ma Ping-loon, a member of the Poultry Dealers and Workers Association, said business was down about 40 per cent from last year's festival.
"We're badly affected by this. Very few people are buying chicken compared with last year. Sales have been slow all day," Ma said.
He added that the price for one catty (about 600 grams) of fresh chicken fell 30 per cent yesterday to about HK$45.
A live-chicken vendor at the Java Road Municipal Services Building in North Point said sales of both local chickens and those imported from the mainland were down compared with last year, but the prices were about the same.
One shopper at the market said she would serve seafood instead of chicken this year. "I'm avoiding any form of contact with chicken, whether it's dead or alive," she said, adding that she had made the decision after news of the first death from the new strain of bird flu affecting humans, H10N8, in Jiangxi province.
Mainland health authorities last week confirmed that an elderly woman died earlier this month after contracting H10N8, another strain of bird flu that has crossed the species barrier.
But not everyone yesterday was prepared to give up chicken, a traditional part of winter solstice celebrations in Hong Kong.
"There's no reason to worry about it, as long as the chicken is cooked through," said one woman, who had just bought half a chicken from a live poultry seller at the North Point market.
Another customer there said he had specified that he wanted a chicken from a local poultry farm. "There's no [outbreak of] bird flu in Hong Kong and we have checks at the border so I think local chickens should be safe to consume," he said.
Last week it emerged that three patients who had contracted the H7N9 strain of bird flu, including a domestic helper from Hong Kong, had visited a market in Shenzhen's Longgang district where traces of the H7N9 virus had been discovered by the authorities on December 11.
The latest case is a 38-year-old migrant worker who lives and works in Nanwan Street, Longgang, near the market, who was in critical condition in hospital.
A second patient, a 39-year-old man from Dongguan, commuted to the district.
The pair follow Tri Mawarti, a domestic helper who on December 2 became the first person in Hong Kong diagnosed with the virus. She is believed to have handled a live chicken at a flat in Nanwan Street before falling ill.
Guangdong has confirmed six cases of H7N9 in humans since August. So far, there have been 143 confirmed cases on the mainland, in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, public hospitals in Hong Kong have stepped up tests for bird flu. All patients with pneumonia and flu-like symptoms are required to be tested for bird flu, even if they have not come into contact with birds or poultry or travelled recently.