Live chickens will be banned from Hong Kong's wet markets by 2009, more than 10 years after the idea was first flagged, a senior government source revealed yesterday. The source said the Health, Welfare and Food Bureau would next month present the Legislative Council with a timetable to phase out the sale of live chickens, to coincide with the plan for setting up a central slaughterhouse in the northwest New Territories. The moves were aimed at further reducing the risk of bird flu infection in humans. Under the blueprint, chicken farms will still be permitted to operate if their biosecurity measures are up to standard - or if the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain does not strike local farms in the next few years. The government source said setting the deadline at three years struck a good balance between public health and trade concerns. The ban would mean compulsory surrender of chicken stall licences. Since the government buy-back scheme was introduced in July 2004 to reduce the supply of live poultry and close substandard farms, 272 of a total 814 chicken stalls in wet markets have surrendered their licences. Just 30 farms out of 200 have applied to surrender their licences. Stallholders and farms have until August 4 this year to exit the industry under the scheme. The government plans to build the central slaughterhouse in the northwest New Territories, where chickens will be butchered before being distributed to retail outlets. The government source said a few private contractors had shown interest in operating the plant. Privatisation would mean more efficient operation, but the contractors had indicated that for the business to be viable there should be no live poultry in wet markets. If no private contractor took on the project, the government would consider operating the plant, the source said. The proposal for a central slaughterhouse was first broached in 1997 when H5N1 first jumped the species barrier, killing six of the 18 people who fell sick in the Hong Kong outbreak. The idea was reiterated by Team Clean, headed by the then chief secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, in 2003. Wong Wai-chuen, chairman of the Hong Kong Poultry Wholesalers and Retailers Association, said shutting the stalls was unacceptable. 'If the government wants to kill our trade, we can only sit here and wait,' he said. 'All of us feel it is very unfair. For the past few years there has been no outbreak [of bird flu] and the hygiene in wet markets has improved a lot.' Anthony James, a veterinarian and member of the Food Safety Advisory Committee, said: 'I think it is the correct thing to do.' Infectious diseases specialist Lo Wing-lok said shutting down wet markets would help protect people against H5N1. Confiscations of poultry continued last night when agricultural officers raided an unlicensed farm in Yuen Long and took away more than 300 chickens. The owner lamented they were the family's only source of income and they might have to apply for welfare.