The government yesterday banned the sale of live chickens for three weeks and is preparing to cull 20,000 birds at the wholesale market in Cheung Sha Wan today.
The developments came after a sample from a Guangdong supplier tested positive for H7N9 bird flu, which has killed dozens of people in China since last year.
The decision sparked anger among chicken traders, who had been expecting bumper sales over the Lunar New Year.
Fearing they would lose millions of dollars, some staged a protest last night, driving a truck loaded with live chickens to Government House in Central. The truck was stopped by police on Upper Albert Road, the only route to Government House, causing some traffic disruption as a stand-off ensued.
Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man said the government had contacted mainland authorities, asking them to help trace the source of the virus. It was the first confirmed case in an imported chicken since an H7 gene test was introduced last April.
The last time an import ban and cull were carried out was in 2011, when a chicken found dead in the Cheung Sha Wan market was confirmed to have H5N1, another bird flu strain deadly to humans.
University of Hong Kong microbiologist Professor Yuen Kwok-yuen called for calm, saying he was not surprised by the case. "As we enter into deep winter with falling temperatures and the approach of the festive season, the density of the poultry population increases with a concomitant increase in the proportion of infected poultry.
"As long as we screen out those consignments of infected poultry [and identify] infected farms, the public will be safe."
Wholesaler Cheng Chin-keung estimates he could lose HK$5 million. "The government should be held fully responsible. It should have stopped the chickens at the border until they were confirmed to be clear of bird flu," he said. "Now the chickens from China get mixed with local chickens in the wholesale market and all of them have to be culled."
Legislator Steven Ho Chun-yin, who represents the agriculture and fisheries sector, urged the government to compensate the traders. "Hong Kong imports about 7,000 chickens from the mainland every day. … The ban on sales means the [local] chickens will stay on the farms. By the time the ban is lifted, [they] will have already grown too old and this will affect their prices."
Additional reporting by Ng Kang-chung