Bird flu hits sales by Hong Kong chicken dealers


HONG KONG, AP

A new outbreak of bird flu spooked consumers and devastated poultry sales Thursday — and food safety officials who shut three markets were investigating the deaths of 70 chickens at another one.

Chicken stall owners said business has slumped by half or more since authorities announced Wednesday they had discovered a new avian virus strain similar to the deadly bird flu that killed six people and sickened many in 1997.

There is no evidence people are affected by the current outbreak, the government said, but the story is dominating newspaper headlines and television newscasts here, and many people are frightened.

Many consumers have lost their appetite for the birds. The government said wholesale poultry prices have dropped by nearly 20 percent compared to Wednesday. The day’s leftover stock of unsold birds has jumped threefold to 19,000, from 5,000 on Wednesday.

“Of course we’ve been hard hit,” sighed chicken dealer Cheung Yim-king. “It’s such a sensitive period that fewer people are coming to the market, not to mention buying anything.”

Many Hong Kong families prefer to buy their poultry live in the markets, where chickens are packed into cages where they wait to be slaughtered on the spot so customers can take them home still warm.

Another chicken seller, who only gave his surname as Chung, lamented that his business has fallen by about 80 percent.

The government said it acted quickly after 797 birds were apparently killed by the flu. Officials culled more than 7,000 live birds Wednesday after it found that chickens in three local markets have contracted the H5N1 strain of avian influenza. The three markets remained closed.

Secretary for the Environment and Food Lily Yam told an evening news conference that 70 dead chickens were discovered in another market and lab workers were trying to see what had killed them. Officials expected answers on Friday, Yam said, and they would determine then whether to cull more chickens or close the market.

Facing questions about how well Hong Kong had responded, Yam defended the work of poultry market inspectors and said “we only found out about the outbreak because of the surveillance system.”

Many shoppers remained cautious, saying they would stop eating chickens in coming weeks.

“I won’t buy chickens for the time being,” said Wong Wan-ying, 50, who has two sons.

“I still remember the bird flu outbreak back in 1997 that killed several people,” Wong said. “Of course we will be scared every time a new virus strain is found.”

Hong Kong was terrified during the 1997 outbreak in which the deadly H5N1 virus crossed over from birds to humans — and officials slaughtered all 1.4 million chickens in the territory. But critics accused the government of responding too slowly — in what became one of Hong Kong’s biggest crises after it reverted from British to Chinese sovereignty.

This time, the government insisted it has acted quickly and wisely.