Selective ban on live poultry imports puts Hong Kong at risk of deadly bird flu outbreak, expert warns
Silkie fowl, pigeons, chukars, pheasants and quail are all allowed into the city despite most of them being as susceptible to viruses as the common chicken
An influx of alternative birds to feed a gastronomic gap in the Hong Kong market left by a ban on live chicken imports increases the risk of a deadly bird flu outbreak, an expert has warned.
The concern was raised after it emerged that of the 5,643 birds that were slaughtered in a cull at Cheung Sha Wan wholesale market last week, only 48 were chickens. The rest were silkie fowl, pigeons, chukars, pheasants and quail.
According to Dr Howard Wong, a former government adviser on avian flu who is now a consultant for the United Nations, silkie fowl – also known as Chinese chicken – are just as susceptible to bird flu as the common chicken but continue to be imported from mainland China and sold in Hong Kong’s wet markets.
The strange-looking bird, notable for its poodle-like plumage, is not bred in Hong Kong and as such could only be entering the city from farms on the mainland, where this year at least 16 people have died following two outbreaks of avian flu.
Wong said: “It’s a mistake to import these birds from China [given the outbreaks] – no other country would take that risk.”
The former principal veterinary officer for Hong Kong’s Food, Agriculture and Health Department and executive director at City University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, added: “Common chickens are generally thought of as the culprit for avian flu, but that’s just because of their high volume on the market.
“While there isn’t much research into the susceptibility to avian flu of birds like the silkie fowl, there is no evidence that would suggest they are any less of a risk.”
Aside from common chickens, only pigeons are known to be less susceptible to avian flu.
Sales of live chickens resumed last Thursday after more than 3,000 samples taken from local poultry farms were found to be clear of bird flu.
Meanwhile, the Food and Environmental Health Department is carrying out a study into its policy of allowing the sale of live chickens in wet markets.
“The government is conducting a consultancy study on the way forward of the live poultry trade in Hong Kong, including whether the sale of live poultry should continue,” a spokesperson for the department said, adding that a public consultation on the subject would take place later this year.
“Imported food poultry – such as chicken, silky chicken, pigeon, guinea fowl, pheasant and chukar – must be sourced from registered farms under the supervision of the mainland authority.
“The government is adopting very stringent biosecurity and quarantine
measures at various levels of the live poultry supply chain to prevent avian influenza and protect public health.”
Since 2014, a total of 47,209 poultry have been culled at wet markets, according to figures from the AFCD. Of these, 28,827 were common chickens, 8,038 silkie fowl, 2,775 chukars and 1,625 pheasants.
The keeping of live birds for consumption in wet markets across Hong Kong remains a contentious subject for public health and animal welfare reasons.
“The Food and Environmental Health Department are doing a review into the wet market from a public health angle, but we’re also being consulted from the animal welfare perspective,” said Karina O’Carroll of NGO Animals Asia, who expressed concern about the transportation methods through which live poultry are brought to Hong Kong. Birds are kept in such close proximity that cross-contamination of disease is likely.
“We don’t agree with the traumatic methods [used] and we believe the poor hygiene standards increase public health risks,” she said.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals also weighed in, adding that bringing in live poultry for public display was an antiquated practice.
“Historically Hong Kong wet markets kept live poultry so that people could check the conditions of the birds, and also so that meat was fresh,” said Dr Fiona Woodhouse of the SPCA. “But now we have refrigerators and quality control, there’s just no justification for the practice anymore.”