A SPATE of health scares and increasing demands on busy families' time are threatening to drive a Hong Kong institution - the wet market - into extinction. Supermarkets capitalising on shoppers' growing concerns over food hygiene are promoting clean and fresh meat and vegetables, and rapidly stealing business from family stalls. Retailers say markets cannot survive in their current form, and must modernise or die out within a decade. 'There's a fundamental change in the way people shop,' Wellcome marketing manager Doug Brown told the Post. 'Increasingly, consumers want more convenient foods because of time constraints. Going to a wet market and picking and choosing takes time.' ParknShop marketing director Andrew Brent said hygiene was the main factor. 'There's been a whole rash of health problems related to food and poor food hygiene, going back to bird flu and red tide, E. coli beef and pesticide on vegetables,' he said. 'Increasingly, people are not willing to accept that and are looking for the type of food hygiene standards they see when they travel. 'In Hong Kong you can take a pig and throw it on the ground and hack it apart and there's no legislation preventing that,' Mr Brown said. The Provisional Urban Council runs 31 markets in Kowloon and a further 30 on Hong Kong Island. They account for about 10,000 stalls, which have traditionally been the place where families shop for the freshest ingredients. But as the number of food poisoning cases climbs - Department of Health figures show an 80 per cent rise in the number of outbreaks between 1996 and 1998 - supermarkets are rapidly eating away at their custom, promising health checks on staff and stringent hygiene standards. The people most loyal to their local markets are the elderly. Mr Brown said the changing structure of families meant young couples, singles and busy families did not have time for markets. 'They've got limited time and in a lot of cases limited ability - they don't know how to prepare foods - so if a supermarket can do it for them, they're willing to pay for that.' Mr Brent agreed: 'The other thing we've found is that children particularly don't like markets because they're a bit dirty and smelly.' Wellcome and ParknShop say markets will be able to hang on if they modernise and apply the strict standards consumers demand. 'The good markets will be fine, they'll become more hygienic, and the bad markets will struggle like bad supermarkets and bad restaurants,' Mr Brent said. 'The challenge for us in a way is to be as much fun to shop in as a market.' A spokeswoman for the Provisional Urban Council said there were no figures reflecting turnover at the council-run markets, and declined to comment on their future. But Hong Kong Retail Management Association chairman Philip Ma King-huen said markets were already dying; plans for new towns no longer paid attention to markets in the way they used to. 'The wet markets are a long-time Hong Kong tradition, and for many people it's a daily event [to shop there], but all things must change with time,' he said. 'Modern families are being driven to the supermarket and, over a period of time, as the older people disappear, younger families will probably only patronise the supermarkets. I think it will take about 10 years.' But Mr Ma is not yet ready to put the final nail in the coffin of wet markets, saying spending and a will to modernise could save them. 'The atmosphere of a wet market is different from a supermarket, they have charm and, if they could raise some of their hygiene standards, perhaps it could work.'