Guangzhou suspended sales of live poultry at nearly a third of its wet markets yesterday as it began a four-month pilot scheme.
The move was instigated 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.
Upon conclusion of the trial on September 30, the city government proposes gradually extending the ban, covering chickens, ducks, geese and pigeons, to other parts of the metropolis. The ban is expected to be implemented citywide by 2024.
Currently, it affects 298 live poultry stalls at 82 wet markets in Yuexiu district, and in parts of Tianhe, Liwan and Panyu districts, where vendors will sell centrally slaughtered chickens that will be provided by three designated suppliers.
However, the policy was not welcomed by Guangzhou locals, with vendors complaining of a loss of business, and consumers who insist on buying live poultry saying they will travel to other districts or seek underground vendors of fresh birds.
The move is viewed by some residents as the beginning of the end of a 2,000-year Cantonese culinary tradition that views the freshness of ingredients as greatly affecting the taste and texture of dishes.
The Hangzhou government in Zhejiang province permanently banned all live poultry sales in the inner city in February.
A 34-year-old housewife who refused to be named said she spent 100 yuan (HK$125) a week on live chickens and would seek out live fowls even after the ban.
"The meat of frozen chicken, long after it was slaughtered, has no texture. Existing marketing irregularities also mean many vendors sell sick chickens, so I insist on having the birds slaughtered in front of me to make sure they are healthy," she said.
In a wet market in the Taojin area of Yuexiu district, all live poultry vendors closed their stalls on the first day of the ban as businesses tried to minimise losses.
"I'm afraid my business will no longer be viable, so I need to wait and see. No one buys centrally slaughtered chickens, and I'm not ready to introduce them yet," said a vendor surnamed Wang, who left a notice for customers to call her for freshly slaughtered chickens.
Another live-poultry stall owner in Haizhu district, which has yet to be affected by the ban, said his business improved by at least 70 per cent yesterday.
"Usually, I sell about 40 chickens a day but today I've sold about 70 already," vendor Peng Qijin, 52, said.
Currently, centrally slaughtered chickens sell for between 40 to 80 yuan each, depending on their weight and variety, which is roughly the same as for quality live chickens.
The Guangzhou city government will offer each vendor a 24,000 yuan subsidy to help equip their stores for sales of centrally slaughtered birds.
But vendors complain that the subsidy is not enough to cover renovations, refrigeration and other required equipment.
A Hong Kong government spokeswoman said yesterday that it was time to talk with the poultry trade and residents about whether sales of live poultry were still appropriate in the city.
The government would hire a consultant this year to study the matter and make recommendations, the spokeswoman said.
University of Hong Kong microbiologist Professor Yuen Kwok-yung said yesterday that he had, since 1997, regarded centralised slaughtering as the best solution for preventing locally acquired avian flu infections. But he conceded that it might not be economically viable and would not solve the problem of infected imports.
Leung Wai-tong, a live-poultry retailer in Hong Kong from the Poultry Dealers and Workers Association, said the trial in Guangzhou might lead more Hongkongers to support stopping live sales. But he also questioned whether the trial would succeed with opposition so strong.